When a zombie followed August DuPont home one day, he didn't expect her to stick around. But Claudette is in no hurry to leave August's side. And when he decides to go to Croissant City in search of the elusive Zombie Stone, Claudette joins him. It's a good thing she does, because no sooner had August set out than a mysterious white alligator began to follow him. Reptiles aren't the only creatures to look out for, though. When August is reunited with his dour cousins the Malveaus, and their menacing mother, Orchid, finding the stone before they do takes on a new urgency. Throw in a swamp doctor, a costume parade, a pop star, a séance, a band of smugglers, and four new zombies, and you'd better believe that August's quest is only going to get more complicated.
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It had become apparent that the canoe was sinking.
The opaque brown water, which had moments before been sloshing around the boy’s shoes, had now reached his ankles.
“Claudette!” cried the boy urgently, pointing toward the largest of several spouting holes. “Stop that up with your finger!”
The girl named Claudette, however, must surely have been stronger than she realized. For while attempting to plug the gushing water, she promptly forced her entire fist through the vessel’s hull, dramatically worsening the situation, as you might imagine.
The boy scrambled across the canoe to stuff the jagged gash with a plaid blanket. But within moments the wool was a saturated lump, the “repair” worthless, and, in the meantime, the other leaks were worsening. Indeed, with every second, there was more and more water, and less and less canoe.
As wet coldness reached his knees, the boy finally came to understand that the boat was doomed. Yet even then, he did not fully appreciate the dire nature of his predicament.
There was, however, someone who did.
One hundred feet above the foundering vessel, an osprey was headed back to its nest and family with a freshly caught bass. The bird observed the splashy drama far below with a detached curiosity, as you or I might observe some feathery misadventure in the sky above.
The male human, just visible through a cloud of tasty-looking butterflies, had removed his oddly netted helmet and, for some reason, was using it to toss around water. The female human—who moved like a thing living, but to the bird above smelled like a thing dead—was with cupped hands awkwardly attempting to do the same.
Humans, the osprey mused, were an odd bunch. What the frantic pair were trying to achieve he could hardly imagine. But what he spied next, the osprey understood only too well; for every creature of the swamp is hardwired to recognize the most dangerous of predators.
Through the watery channel, just beneath the surface, moved the pale shadow of a white beast. So enormous was it, that the osprey dropped its family’s dinner in shock. The thing was wider than the vessel was long, and its powerful, snaking tail created a wake like that of a shrimping boat.
And the white, enormous, snaking beast with a powerful wake was rapidly advancing upon the sinking canoe.
But before we discover the plight of August and Claudette DuPont (for such were the names of the children in that ill-fated craft), we must return to the previous day, when the events leading to this remarkable situation began in a pretty unremarkable way.
August DuPont popped his head around the kitchen door, where his aunt Hydrangea was counting bottles of DuPont’s Peppy Pepper Sauce into a cardboard box.
“Eleven, twelve, thirteen,” muttered the wide-eyed lady in the pink tiara. She cast around the kitchen table, then, skirts rustling, turned entirely around, scanning the room. “That can’t be all. It surely can’t be all. I could have sworn . . .”
“I’m just heading outside, Aunt,” August announced, “to fertilize the pepper plants.” Hydrangea, distracted, was conducting a recount.
“Is it,” she inquired absently, “the right time of year for such a measure, sugar?”
August slid a book into the lady’s line of sight.
The volume was rather old, of the hard-backed variety that was printed before the invention of dust jackets. Its elaborate title and cover decoration were embossed and gilded, but the edges were fraying, the leaf wearing thin, and the pages were scarcely held together by the spine.
“It is the right time,” August assured his aunt, donning long, bulky gloves and a netted beekeeper’s helmet, “according to LouLou Bouquet.”
Wistfully, Hydrangea placed her fingers on the book.
“Now, where,” she wondered, “did you ever find this old thing?”
“It’s been helping to prop up my desk,” responded August.
“The one with the broken leg. I noticed it a while back, when I was looking for a pushpin on the floor.”
Hydrangea lifted the volume.
“The Capsicum Compendium,” she read. “A Practical Pocket Guide for the Professional Pepper Planter.” She looked up. “You know, sugar, that in over one hundred years, no one has produced a more learned or reliable manual on pepper farming? Or so my papa would say. He regarded Miz Bouquet’s authority on the subject as absolute. So did his papa. And his.”
She handed the book to August, a faint crease in her brow.
“And now you pick up the torch; the last of the DuPonts. Perhaps you, August, can one day revive the family hot sauce empire. Have I ever told you that DuPont’s Peppy Pepper Sauce was once the most highly regarded—”
“—hot sauce in the world?” August had heard this speech so many times before, he could finish it verbatim. “From Croissant City to Paris, France. Fiery yet sweet. Like a dragon’s kiss.”
Hydrangea laid her hand on the boy’s cheek and smiled sadly.
“I’m glad to see at least,” she said, “that LouLou Bouquet is being put to more fitting use than supporting broken furniture.”
Awkwardly, as he was holding a book in his gloved hand, August heaved a generously sized sack of fertilizer from the kitchen floor.
“Now remember, sugar,” said Hydrangea. “No further—”
“I know, ma’am,” interrupted August, shortly. “No further than the gate.”
“Can’t you content yourself, child, with the yard?” Hydrangea’s voice had an injured air of appeal. “It’s true that Locust Hole is not the place it once was, but it is by no means a small property. There is fresh air, a canal to fish, trees to climb.”
The lady pursed her lips.
“You may well roll your eyes, August. But let us not forget that your last misadventure into the cruel world has left us with ongoing”—lowering her voice, she glanced at the ceiling “consequences.”
In the foyer, August stopped to slide LouLou Bouquet’s compendium under his bag-wielding arm, thus freeing a hand to open the front door. As his gloved fist slid over the smooth brass he paused, recalling the very first time he ever turned it, eight months before.
Only eight months had passed since the boy had stepped beyond the threshold of his house for the first time. He glanced at the wood plank barricades resting redundant against the foyer wall, and recalled lifting them from their brackets, gingerly so as not to alert his high-strung aunt.
So petrified was the lady, of butterflies and betrayals and almost everything else in the world beyond Locust Hole, she had sought to keep her nephew safely cloistered within its walls.
Sliding through the front door and closing it firmly behind him, the boy crossed a screened-in porch and navigated voluminous net curtains to arrive at the crisp spring air and sunlight beyond.
The bag of fertilizer landed with a dull thump in the dirt of a planter, beside some weedy green shoots, the yard’s only living plants. The circular flowerbed lay at the center of a geometric pattern that had once represented an Italian garden. But the small hedges defining the paths had long since perished, the gravel was thin and scattered, and the Grecian urns lay prone and broken.
Swatting aside three butterflies that had immediately fluttered into orbit around him, August crouched and examined a seedling, lifting a limp leaf.
“No fruit yet, you guys?” he sighed. “I know it’s only March, but I’d really hoped to surprise Aunt Hydrangea today with some tiny babies. But you’re looking sadder than a catfish in a soup pot. Maybe LouLou Bouquet can tell me what I’m doing wrong.” The boy placed the book on the bag of fertilizer. “But I’m afraid that she will have to wait.”
August straightened, glanced toward the house, then strode quickly toward the yard gate. To the left of it, atop a crooked post, perched a mailbox. The rusty arch-topped receptacle had a door at either end, to deposit or retrieve its contents from yard or street.
In a single, swift movement, August removed an envelope from his pocket and placed it inside. It was more of a struggle, however, to raise the tin flag that indicated the presence of outgoing mail; clearly many years had passed since the thing was moved.
“I hope,” thought August, “that Mr. LaPoste notices the flag. He usually picks up our mail from the porch, but I think it should catch his eye.”
The boy shot another glance over his shoulder. Nothing. He rubbed his palms on his thighs. “She didn’t see,” he thought.
Mission accomplished, the boy’s shoulders relaxed, and he was about to turn back toward the fertilizer and LouLou Bouquet, when a sound stopped him short. It was the weak, crispy-crunchy roll of bicycle tires.
Holding the pointed ends of the pickets to shield his ribs, August leaned over the gate, craning to catch a glimpse of the approaching rider. He wondered if it would be the same girl as last time. August had enjoyed the way her long, bony legs stuck out every which way, making him think of a grasshopper on a bike.
But it seemed unlikely. No one ever delivered to Locust Hole more than once. At least, not since Gaston.
August couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for the sturdy red-headed delivery boy who had, with well devised bait, lured him out into the world beyond Locust Hole for the first time.
The trap had launched a tumultuous period, filled with problems great and small. But it had also been a time of great happiness; a time when August had believed himself to have friends. He revisited the heart-warming sense of belonging he had enjoyed when, very briefly, his life had resembled that of his favorite TV teen, Stella Starz.
But, with a sickening lurch of the heart, he forced himself back to reality.
In the end, he thought, he was wrong. There were no friends. Only deception and betrayal. He ran his fingers over the dent in his helmet, a battle scar from the catastrophe that had smashed his newfound joy to bits.
But August was, like his helmet, only dented, not destroyed. He was young and resilient and, despite all his misfortunes, filled with hope.
“Perhaps,” he contemplated, brightening at the prospect, “grasshopper girl watches Stella Starz (in Her Own Life). I wonder if she’s seen the cat litter commercial with Officer Claw,
Stella’s cat. Maybe she likes Mudd Pies.” Armed with these compelling questions, August braced himself to open a conversation.
The bicycle’s rider, however, was not the grasshopper-like girl, but a smallish, wiry boy. He dismounted, his uneasy, bulging eyes glued to the house. So engrossed was he that he didn’t even notice August’s beekeeper gloves, nor his dented helmet, nor the five butterflies circling it.
“Did you bring,” asked August, “the fiberglass patches and glue that my aunt ordered?” Without removing his gaze from the front porch, the boy wordlessly handed two brown paper bags over the gate.
“Yep! Here they are,” said August with satisfaction, discovering the desired items near the top of one bag. He looked up with a forced smile.
“Have you,” he launched in brightly, “by any chance, seen the commercial for Kitty Clumps with Stella Starz’s cat, Officer Claw?”
But before any discussion could commence, August heard the front door slam behind him, the swish of net curtain and dragging, heavy footsteps on the porch steps.
He watched the delivery boy’s expression turn from apprehension to undisguised horror. August’s shoulders slumped; he sighed and closed his eyes, awaiting what he knew would happen next.
It happened every time.
The boy opened his mouth, pointed at something over August’s shoulder, and screamed, “Zombie!”