For readers of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener comes a perfectly peculiar tale that shows the scariest monsters are often the ones we create for ourselves.
Isaac Read doesn’t feel like a monster. He’s just like every other kid on his block—as long as he tapes down his tail, that is!
Wren wishes her adopted family would stop teasing her about her lousy sense of smell and poor sense of direction. It’s not her fault she doesn’t have their sensitive snouts and keen eyesight.
The overcrowded voracans hate getting walked all over—literally. They live underground.
Broken promises and new alliances spell trouble for Wren and Isaac as the voracans try to claw their way to the top—and bring some unlikely suspects with them!
About the Author
Laurel Gale lives with her husband and their own tiny monsters—also known as ferrets—in Vancouver, Washington. She is also the author of Dead Boy, which Reading Rainbow called “a magical and mythical story of loneliness, courage, friendship, and living life to the fullest—even when you aren’t technically ‘alive.’” You can visit Laurel online at laurelgale.com or on Twitter at @Laurel_Gale.
Read an Excerpt
Isaac Read had long ago mastered the art of unpacking. As he put his belongings away, he took care not to rip any of the cardboard boxes, which he would be using again soon enough. The entire process took less than an hour--a record for him.
The Reads’ new one-story house resembled their old one. Generic furniture flattened the beige carpet underneath. Mildly pretty but uninteresting pictures, the type found in hotel rooms across the country, decorated the walls. In many ways, the rented house wasn’t much different from a hotel. There was no point in buying a house to make their own, though; not when the Reads would have to pack up and move again in another six months.
Mr. Read, tall and thin, with an angular face softened by his kind eyes and somewhat fluffy mess of light brown hair, knocked on Isaac’s door before entering with a plate of peanut butter cookies. “How do you like your new room?”
“It’s nice.” Isaac took a cookie, still warm and soft.
“I think it’s bigger than your last room.”
Isaac’s mouth was full, so he nodded his response. The room was a tiny bit bigger, but Isaac preferred small spaces.
“Did you see the walk‑in closet?” Mr. Read pointed to the impossible-to-miss closet, already full of boxes, clothes, and other more secret items.
“Mmhmm.” Isaac swallowed the last of his cookie and reached for another. “There was a spider in it.”
Mr. Read’s eyes widened. He edged away from the infestation in the closet. “Is it still there?”
“No. I killed it.” Actually, Isaac had put it outside, but he knew his father would feel more comfortable thinking the tiny invader had died.
Indeed, Mr. Read’s shoulders relaxed. “Have you heard from Darren?”
Isaac nodded. He wasn’t allowed to use social media--too many pictures--but Darren, one of his friends in Arizona, had sent him a text. Isaac could expect a few more, maybe even a couple of emails. Then the messages would stop. After all, he’d only known Darren for a few months--not nearly long enough for a lasting friendship to form.
“We could always move back there in the fall,” Mr. Read said. “Then you could see him again.”
“I guess. But . . .” Leaving his friends was hard enough. What if he returned and they didn’t remember him? “I think I’d rather go somewhere new, like we always do.”
“Okay. Have you thought about the classes you want to try?”
Isaac never attended public school. The biannual moving made homeschooling far more practical, though he did regularly sign up for other classes. He always took flute lessons, and he usually took some kind of art class. He liked sports, too. He was a little small for his age, but fast and agile.
“Maybe I could try sculpture.” The thought of clay squeezing through his fingers appealed to him very much. “And soccer again.”
Mr. Read frowned. “Soccer? Really? But remember Louisiana . . .”
Isaac remembered well enough. Right after scoring a goal, he’d noticed everyone staring at him, but at first he just assumed they were in awe of his amazing talent. It turned out his talent wasn’t half as impressive as his tail, which had come out of his shorts and was sticking straight up.
They’d moved early that year.
“I’ll tape my tail down. It’ll be fine.”
“If you’re sure.” Mr. Read held the plate out so Isaac could take another cookie. “Your mother’s been summoned to a conference. She’s running errands now, but she’ll come back before catching her flight so you can say goodbye.”
“A conference!” Isaac’s tail, not currently taped into submission, shot up. “Can I go with her?”
“No, kiddo. You’re too young.”
Eleven years old hardly struck him as too young to start training, and it seemed far too old to be called “kiddo.”
“But I’m going to be an ambassador someday. Shouldn’t I learn? Unless you want me to fail.” Isaac tried to keep a straight face as he said this, but he couldn’t keep the corner of his mouth from twitching upward.
“Don’t be silly. Of course I don’t want you to fail. And you won’t. You’ll have plenty of time to learn later--but not now. Not at your age. Relations between clepsits and humans are, well, tense, and this conference is no place for a little boy.”
Isaac’s tail fell. “Little boy.” That was worse than “kiddo.” He didn’t see why his size should have anything to do with it. He was only a couple of inches shorter than most boys his age, which was probably average for a clepsit--although never having seen another one before, he couldn’t be sure.
Later that day, Mrs. Read, a plump woman who liked to keep her dark red hair short and out of the way, transferred her clothes from a cardboard box to a suitcase.
“How long will you be gone?” Isaac asked.
“At least a week. Possibly longer.”
Isaac glanced over his shoulder to make sure his father wasn’t lurking nearby. “Dad said maybe I could go with you--start training for when I’m ambassador.”
“He said no such thing, and lies like that will only land you in trouble when you’re an ambassador, which isn’t for many years now. You can start training when you turn sixteen, just as I did. Right now you need to be here, learning about human culture.”
Isaac thought he could learn a lot more about humans if he didn’t have to hide who he was from them, but he knew this wasn’t a point worth debating. Clepsits knew all about humans, who had never bothered to keep a low profile, but preferred to keep their own existence secret--which meant that Isaac had to hide his real identity, too.
“How could you tell I was lying?” he asked. His mother always seemed to know.
“Your ears twitched. Can you hand me those socks?”
Isaac passed them to her. “I just want to meet others like me. Other clepsits. Will my dad be there?” His hesitated. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean--”
“It’s okay.” Mrs. Read tousled her son’s white-and-brown-streaked hair. “Yes. Bronco of Snow, your birth father, will be there. I’m looking forward to talking to him--not just about the conference matters, but about you.” She smiled. “And Wren.”
“What is the conference about?” It wasn’t a regularly scheduled one--those only happened on the winter and summer solstices of each year--which meant that some problem had arisen.
“There have been reports of voracans attacking people--both humans and clepsits.”
“Voracans?” Isaac had never heard the word before. “What are they?”
Mrs. Read hesitated before answering. “Creatures, somewhat intelligent but very brutal, that live underground.”
Isaac’s tail shot up with excitement. “What do they look like? Are they another type of clepsit?”
“Oh, no, definitely not. I’ll tell you more about them later, but honestly, they’re very rare. I can’t believe anyone thinks they’re a real threat. The clepsits are probably just using this as an excuse to meet.”
“They’re angry about climate change, and pollution, and oil drilling, and overfishing. And they think I should be able to do something about it. I’ll explain that I can’t, but that the various human governments are trying. It’ll be just like the last conference. Nothing new. Nothing to worry about.”
Isaac nodded, but he was worried.
Clepsits had always felt threatened by humans. For good reason, too. Isaac had heard the cautionary tales, which his mother brought up whenever he got sloppy about taping down his tail in public. He knew that in the past, human mobs had attacked clepsits, accusing them of being witches or werewolves or something else equally ridiculous. That was why clepsits didn’t want most humans knowing about them--and now Isaac wondered whether these new creatures, the voracans, stayed hidden underground for similar reasons.
But humans and clepsits still had to share the planet, so around 1800, when the Industrial Revolution resulted in fewer trees, more pollution, and a larger population, the ambassador program began. It was supposed to help humans and clepsits coexist. Sometimes Isaac wondered whether it was working.
“Will humans and clepsits ever get along?” he asked.
Mrs. Read checked her camera, which had a special case. She used nature photography as a cover for her travels and her real job as an ambassador, but the photographs always came out so stunning and sold so well that it might as well have been her real job. “I don’t see why not. They have before. And we get along, right?”
“Yeah.” Isaac smiled. “We do, Mom.”
“I know it’s hard for you. It was hard for me, too, growing up with the clepsits.”
“Were they nice?”
“Oh, yes, very.” Her eyes narrowed, and her smile vanished. “Well, some of them. Some were kinder than others, much like what you find among humans. Not everyone welcomed the presence of a human in their clan. But my parents--my adoptive parents--always took care of me. My mother used to sing me to sleep, and my father took me fishing, just the two of us, whenever I got fed up with the crowded burrow.” Her smile returned. “You promise to be good while I’m gone, and to help your dad?”
“I promise. But I still wish I could go with you.”
He was supposed to be learning about humans, but stuck inside the rented house, he couldn’t do much. Keeping peace between the clepsits and humans would one day be his responsibility, and he thought it would be smart to begin preparing as soon as possible.
Wren of Snow poked her head into the ice-crusted hole and sniffed. She couldn’t actually smell much of anything, but members of the Snow Clan always sniffed. She stood out enough without shunning the habits of her people.
As expected, the scent told her nothing. The entrance looked too small, but she always thought that of the hole that led to her clan’s burrow. Still, this one was really tiny. It probably belonged to a burrow of marmots.
If her brothers had been around, they’d try to bring some of the marmots back for dinner. Wren could try, too, but she doubted she’d succeed on her own. The large rodents looked soft and funny, but marmots had teeth, and anything with teeth could bite. Wren had learned this from experience. Multiple experiences. She moved on.
The days were warming, and only sporadic clumps of winter’s snow remained, but a chill still hung in the air. Wren tried to pretend it didn’t bother her, but she couldn’t stop her teeth from chattering or her skin from breaking out in goose bumps. She needed to find her burrow before night fell.
The next hole was larger. But was it hers? She poked her head inside.
A coyote emerged. It growled, and it might have attacked if not for the scent of clepsit on Wren. She backed away, and the coyote retreated into its cozy den.
An icy wind blew through the trees. Wren pulled her arms inside her dress. Made of fur, it should have been plenty warm, but it left too much of her hands and face exposed. Her mother kept offering to provide her with material for a new outfit--something with gloves and a scarf--but then her siblings and cousins would start teasing her. Wren would rather be cold than put up with that.
She found another hole about the size of the entrance to the coyote’s den, big enough to be her clan’s. Her nose detected nothing, but her ears perked up at the sounds within. Howling. Screaming. Laughing. She hurried inside.
The entrance led to a tunnel. Deeper down, the aroma of meat mingled with the scent of vegetables. Wren’s empty stomach grumbled, but she moved slowly. The tunnel would soon open into a nice burrow lit by oil lamps, but here the dark and narrow passage allowed little space. Although the others had no problem racing along the tight quarters on hands and feet, Wren crawled clumsily.
She reached the burrow, warm and cozy, and her body straightened into a more comfortable standing position.
The burrow housed a large family. Three families, actually, although they were all related. At the moment, many of the clepsits who lived there were away. They didn’t worry about getting back before sunset. They were most likely visiting one of the neighboring burrows of the Snow Clan, places where Wren was always poked and prodded like a curiosity on display.
The clan had to house her. They had to feed her and clothe her and let her live among them. That was part of the treaty that had started the ambassador program. But no one had to accept her. No one had to want her there.
Some, like Aurora, made little attempt to hide this fact.
Aurora was one of Wren’s aunts and the first mother of the Snow Clan, a privilege granted to her by her birth order. This had never struck Wren as a very logical way of deciding who had power, but it was a tradition that no one else questioned. Aurora and her husband, Iron, ruled the Snow Clan with absolute authority.
Wren had heard that humans voted to determine who was in charge, and although Aurora told these tales to show how backward and complicated human society was, Wren had always been fascinated by the idea of voting out her uncle and aunt.
There was no chance of that now, though, or of even avoiding her. Aurora, who rarely left the comfort of her burrow, stood in the cooking corner, where she was busy preparing a rabbit for the night’s stew. She still bore her pale winter color, but brown had begun to streak her hair. “What is that stench? Has the meat gone bad?” She wrinkled her nose at Wren. “Oh. Never mind.”
Breeze, who had been dicing dried vegetables, growled at her sister. She was the second mother of the Snow Clan and Wren’s own mother. At five feet four inches, she stood a good two inches taller than the average adult. Her hair had already turned almost fully brown, but her eyes were still blue and her skin was still pale. With her arms open, she turned to Wren. “Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick!”
Wren let her mother hug her. “I was just taking a walk. The others do it all the time.”
“Yes, but they’re . . .” She brushed a red curl from Wren’s face. “You must be freezing. Let me warm you up a cup of broth.”
“I’m not cold.” She looked over her shoulder and saw that her three brothers, Coney, Colt, and Taurus, had stopped their game of bone dice to watch her. Kit, her sister, and Opal, her cousin, busied themselves by brushing each other’s mostly white hair, but their occasional glances in her direction proved that they were listening. Garnet, Cobalt, and Mercury, more of her cousins, were wrestling as usual--the source of the howls and laughs audible from outside the burrow--but they were probably listening, too.
Excerpted from "Monster, Human, Other"
Copyright © 2017 Laurel Gale.
Excerpted by permission of Random House Children's Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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