Welcome. Pull up a chair. Don't worry about the watching eyes. Let us tell you a story. But be warned. Swamp Monster isn't just any tale. This is a Scary Tale.
The brothers have been dreaming of a new pet for a while, but the monster they find in the swamp might not be the best choice . . . and the creature's mother agrees.
Prepare yourself for the next installment of James Preller's heart-poundingly scary chapter book series filled with dark and creepy illustrations from acclaimed artist Iacopo Bruno.
About the Author
James Preller is the author of Six Innings, Bystander, the Jigsaw Jones series, and the Scary Tales series. He lives in Delmar, New York, with his wife, three kids, two cats, and a golden Labradoodle named Daisy.
Iacopo Bruno is a graphic artist and illustrator who lives in Italy.
Read an Excerpt
By James Preller, Iacopo Bruno
Feiwel and FriendsCopyright © 2015 James Preller
All rights reserved.
PLUNK, SPLAT, GLORP, SPLURGE ...
The Dirge Chemical Plant had been dumping toxic sludge into the swamp for the past twenty-five years.
The illegal dumping was a fact well-known to the folks in Avarice County, but no one complained.
Because of course, they didn't.
Most of the waste leaked into remote swampland and drained into the good earth. Out of sight, out of mind. Dirge Chemical was owned by the wealthiest family in the state. It employed more than five hundred hardworking men and women from all over the county. Folks depended on that plant for their survival. If it were shut down, they'd lose their jobs and their homes. And what then?
So when it came to a little bit of poison sludge oozing into the earth, folks looked the other way.
DRIP, DROP, SPLURK. It leaked into the streams and waterways, into ponds and lakes. Poison soaked into the ground.
What about the creatures of that environment? The fish and birds and snakes and gators? The animals that drank the water daily? That swam amidst the burbling toxins? Well, most died off. But some adapted. Mutated. Learned how to feed off the toxic waste. Those creatures grew stronger, bigger, tougher.
More dangerous, too.
The pollution was the worst out on the Dead River, which ebbed into Dismal Swamp like a last, dying gasp. Hardly anybody lived out there. Nobody important. Some poor folks, mostly. And that's where our story begins — with two boys, Lance and Chance LaRue. On this day, they were knee-deep in the foul, nasty water, swiping at mosquitoes, searching for frogs.
That was their first mistake.CHAPTER 2
Chance and Lance were brothers, and twins. They both had narrow faces, pointy noses, large eyes, and long, yellow hair that had never seen a comb. Half the time Chance and Lance even shared each other's clothes, inside out and still muddy.
Chance was the firstborn, the oldest by three minutes, and still in a hurry. Lance was the twin with a chipped front tooth and worried eyes. That's how people told them apart.
"Chance is the lively one," their mother would say. "Lance always looks like he thinks a piano is about to fall on his head. Hasn't happened yet, though, and I'm mighty glad of that. Them pianos are expensive to repair."
Then she'd laugh and laugh, holding her round belly.
It was true. Lance was prone to accidents. Lance was the one who spilled milk, got splinters, sat in poison ivy, and got stung by bees. If Lance stood next to Chance in a thunderstorm, Lance would surely be the one who got struck by lightning. Chance wouldn't even get wet.
Even so, despite these differences — or perhaps because of them — the two brothers loved each other fiercely. Maybe it was the hard times that bonded the boys together. Life was not easy at home. They were dirt poor and lived in a falling-down, two-story shack their daddy had hammered together long ago behind Dismal Swamp. And there it remained, sagging into the mud, drained of color by the hot Texas sun. Home, sweet home. Even worse, their daddy had a habit of disappearing for long stretches at a time. Out hunting, or away with friends, or locked up in jail somewhere. Mama said he was a "ne'er-do-well." Chance and Lance didn't know what that meant, exactly, but they figured it was another way of saying "good for nothing."
Sad, but true.
On this sweltering summer morning, the boys headed deep into the shaded swampland. Chance carried a metal bucket in the hopes they might capture some critter worth keeping. That was a constant pursuit for the boys — they longed for a pet. Once the twins found a stray dog, and begged their mother to keep it. She replied, "Boys, I can barely feed you two, ain't no way we can take in another hungry mouth," and that was that. No dog. End of story.
The muddy path skirted the edge of the swampy water. Fortified by peanut butter sandwiches — no jelly to be found at home — the boys felt strong and adventurous. They went deeper into the woods than usual. The trees thickened around them, with names like black willow and water hickory. Long limbs hung low. Spanish moss dangled from the branches like exotic drapes. Snakes slithered. Water rats lay still and watched through small, red eyes. Once in a while, a bird called. Not a song so much as a warning.
STAY AWAY, GAWK, STAY AWAY!
The farther the boys traveled, the darker it got.
Lance stopped and slapped a mosquito on the back of his neck. The bug exploded, leaving behind a splash of blood. "I don't know, Chance," he said doubtfully. "Getting dark, getting late."
Chance chewed on a small stick. He spat out a piece of bark. "Let's keep on going." And off he went, leading the way, content that Lance would follow.
After another while, Chance paused and stooped low, bringing his eyes close to the ground. He pointed to a track in the mud. "What you think, Lance?"
"Too big for a gator," Lance said. He turned to gaze into the dark, snake-infested water as if staring into a cloudy crystal ball. "But I'd say it's gator-ish."
"Heavy, too," Chance noted. "You can tell 'cause the print sank way down."
"Guess you're right," Lance agreed.
"Here's another," Chance said, moving two steps to his right. "Three clawed toes, webbed feet. Weird."
"Never seen the likes of it before," Lance said. "Looks like it was moving fast, judging by the length of the stride —"
"— and headed right there," Chance said, pointing to the swamp, "into the water."
"You reckon those tracks were made by Bigfoot?" Lance asked.
Chance grinned at his brother. They both laughed until the swamp swallowed up the sound. They stood together in the echo of that lonely silence.
"Maybe we should head back," Lance suggested.
"I suppose," Chance said, a little mournfully. "Hold on a minute." He pointed to a hollow by the edge of the water. "Is that an egg?"
"Good eyes, Chance. Turtle egg maybe," Lance confirmed.
Chance inspected it. Cocked his head, listened, looked around. No creature stirred.
"Let's take it home with us," he said.
"It don't feel right," Lance said. "That's some critter's baby."
"It'll be fine," Chance said. "You and me, we'll be real good mamas."
Lance snickered. "I'm not no mama — that's your job, Chance. I'll be the papa."
And that was that. Chance made a bed of mud, twigs, and leaves in the bottom of the bucket. He gently lifted the egg and placed it inside.
"Carry that real soft," Lance advised. "Like a sweet, nice mama."
In response to that, Chance gave his twin a quick kick in the pants.
"Hey!" Lance protested. He pushed Lance in the chest.
"Hey nothing," Chance replied. "Don't start messing around, I don't want this egg to crack."
Right, the egg. Lance peeked into the bucket. The egg was unharmed. So the boys headed home, stealing away with their curious prize through the gathering dark.CHAPTER 3
THE LITTLE MONSTER
Lance lay awake that night in the cramped, stuffy, upstairs room he shared with his brother. A clattering fan pointlessly pushed the hot air around. During the summer, the room felt like an oven. The twin boys baked in bunk beds — with Chance up top, tossing and murmuring and kicking in his sleep. Lance flipped over his pillow, seeking the cool side. Shirtless, he cast aside his only blanket, a thin sheet. The room smelled like a mixture of swamp, sweat, and soggy socks.
Darkness filled the room. It felt like a presence, a living thing that came to spend the night, watchful in a corner, waiting. Lance breathed in the dark. It filled his lungs, entered his stomach. He closed his eyes and the darkness waited. He opened them and it seemed to smile. The invisible night's sharp teeth. Lance breathed out. He disliked the long nights when the sounds of Dismal Swamp played like an eerie orchestra in the air. Frogs croaking, bugs buzzing ... and the sudden, startled cry of a rodent killed by some winged creature in the night.
Lance rolled over, placing his bare feet on the floor. He turned on the reading lamp. There was a Dark Knight comic book on the floor where he had let it slip from his fingers. Bruce Wayne, the Batman!
He heard something. A TAP-TAP-TAPPING. Lance crept on silent feet to the closet and slid out the metal pail. On his knees, Lance peered at the egg inside.
"Chance," Lance whispered. "Chance, quick. Come see this."
Chance moaned and rolled away to face the wall.
That got Chance's full attention. He sat up and, with an athletic thump, landed on the ground.
"I was dreaming about Dad —"
"Shhh," Lance interrupted. "Listen ... it's coming."
TAP, TAP, HISSSSS.
A crack formed across the top of the shell. It spider-webbed into a network of cracks. A small, dark claw poked through. It tore away pieces of shell, bit by bit. The boys watched in awe. Finally, the creature was revealed. It was moist and dark and stood shakily on two uncertain legs. It had two large, yellow eyes and the thick skin of a gator, with a raised ridge along its spine. The twins saw that it had webbed feet with three clawed toes.
"That ain't no turtle," Chance said.
"Nope," Lance agreed. "Look at those claws, those teeth. I've never seen nothing like it before. What do you think it is, Chance?"
"I sure don't know," the oldest boy replied. "But I'll tell you what. I don't ever want to meet the chicken that laid that egg."
At that moment, the newborn raised itself to full height, about six inches. With an angry hiss, the creature opened its mouth wide like a boa. A blood-red neck frill rattled open. SPLAT, SPLATTER! The creature spat black gobs of goo against the side of the pail.
"Whoa, it's a monster," Lance whispered in a soft, appreciative voice. "Our very own swamp monster."
And with those words, the two boys stared at each other ... and high-fived.CHAPTER 4
ROSALEE SERENA RUIZ
Chance and Lance found a spot in the woods where their new pet would stay out of harm's way. There was no need for their mother to know. She'd make them dump it in the woods somewhere. Or maybe she'd want to cook it in a soup.
So in secret, the twins nailed together a mishmash of found objects (junk, mostly) to build a cage. It included an old plastic swimming pool in the center, which they filled halfway with water. To this they added random wooden planks, wire, rocks, and plants. In the end, they had built a fabulous new home for their one special resident.
They even gave the creature a name, too: Thing. Just that, no more. Thing.
Most times, the creature was quiet and gentle, like a baby. It grew to trust Lance, and allowed the boy to hold it and whisper to it gently. Lance beamed down a chipped-tooth smile. He cooed, "Hey, sweet Thing. You're a good little pet."
It liked the water, and stayed under the surface for hours at a time. But Thing did have a nasty side. Once it nearly snapped Chance's index finger right off. Would have, too, if it wasn't for Chance's quick reflexes.
Finding the right food for Thing was also a problem. The boys discussed it at length: What do you feed a little monster?
It was hard to answer. They tried different foods from home — chips and pretzel sticks and orange pop — but most foods didn't work. Thing did eat half a hamburger once, but those were scarce. One day, the boys found the half-eaten corpse of a dead chipmunk in Thing's cage.
Chance scratched his head. "How you figure that got in here?"
"Climbed, I guess," Lance replied. "You think Thing killed it? And ate it?"
"I know plenty of cats would do the same thing," Chance replied, nonjudgmentally. "It's nature. Everybody eats everybody else. That's how the world works."
"Guess you're right," Lance nodded.
The boys did not discuss what might happen when their little monster grew into a big monster? What would it eat then?
They didn't hear Rosalee Serena Ruiz sneak up on them.
"What you got there?" she asked.
They had been found out. There was no use trying to hide it from Rosalee — or Rosie, as they called her. If someone had to discover their secret, Rosalee was the best person for it. She could spit farther, burp louder, run faster, and snap thick branches across her knee. Rosalee was a girl all right, but the boys didn't mind. In fact, they barely noticed. To them, she was just a cool kid.
Rosie was a grade older and lived two minutes down the gravel road. Thick black hair, brown eyes, smooth chocolate skin, dimples, cutoff jeans, and a NASCAR T-shirt: Perfect in every way. Rosie's father could fix most anything — from toasters to TV sets — and he passed that gift onto his only daughter. Rosie knew her way around car engines and wore the grease stains to prove it.
The boys never spoke of it, but they agreed: Rosie was the most beautiful girl they'd ever seen. They would do anything to see her smile.
"I swung by your place," Rosalee said, "but the blinds were drawn. I figured your mom might still be sleeping, so I didn't knock."
"You figured right," Chance said, approving of the girl's caution.
Rosalee nodded her chin at Thing. "What y'all got there?"
"Used to be an egg," Lance offered. He gestured toward the woods. "We found it in there, yonder, deep a-ways. Brought it back here. Now it's ... it's ... whatever this is."
"We named it Thing," Chance clarified.
"Thing," Rosie repeated. She eased herself down on her knees and stared at the creature, nose to nose.
It was the strangest creature Rosie had ever seen. It stood on two legs like a reptile man, though with a gator's tough skin and the powerful jaw of a snapping turtle. It had three claws on each foot, joined by webs. A long fin, like a sail, ran along its spine.
"Careful now, Rosie," Lance warned. "Back up."
Thing's neck frill rattled and spread open.
Lance quickly placed his hand out to shield Rosie's face.
SPLAT! A gob of black liquid shot forth from Thing's mouth, splattering against the back of Lance's hand. Lance cried out in pain, "Gosh darn, not again! That burns, Thing!" He clutched the injured hand tight to his chest.
"You all right?" Rosie asked.
"He's fine. Stings like prickers, that's all," Chance said.
"It goes numb like a bad spider bite," Lance complained, rubbing the hand. "Lasts just a few minutes. I've felt worse than this lots of times."
Rosie stared in wonder at the captured creature. "That was completely gross ... and waaay cool. It shoots poison?"
"Uh-huh," Lance said.
"Yup," Chance agreed.
"Tell me everything," Rosie demanded.
So they told Rosie the entire tale. She listened carefully. Asked a few questions. Listened some more.
Finally, Rosie announced, "I want to bring it home with me. Give it a proper place to live."
The twins glanced at each other, read each other's thoughts without speaking a word.
"I don't know," Lance said.
"It's ours," Chance stated.
"We can share it," Rosalee suggested. "I'll keep it at my house on rainy days."
"I guess," Lance agreed. After all, there was no sense arguing with Rosalee Serena Ruiz. Who'd even want to?
"Tell you what," Chance said. "Tomorrow, we'll go find an egg for you."
Rosalee's dimpled face brightened into a huge smile. "And I'm coming with y'all! Because guess what? I know where we can get a boat."CHAPTER 5
THUNDER IN THE WOODS
The next morning before the birds woke up, the three explorers headed back to Dismal Swamp.
"I had an Uncle Edgardo who used to hunt gators," Rosie told the boys as they walked. "He'd tell us stories. He said some men went deep into Dismal Swamp and never returned. A lady, too, some years back."
"Like they drowned?" Lance asked.
"Eaten by gators, I bet," Chance mused. "Chomp, chomp."
"Gross!" Rosie gave Chance a punch on the shoulder for that one, even though she laughed. "All I know is what I heard," she said. "It's a dangerous place. Real polluted. Smells awful. They say there's strange creatures live out here, like nothing nobody has ever seen."
The path started out firm and dry. But as they drew deeper into the heart of the dark land, it grew wet and sludgy. Chance led the way.
Rosalee paused, looking around.
"This way," Chance said. "Still a-ways to go."
"I remember this place. There," Rosie pointed to the left, in the direction of Dead River. "Uncle Edgardo used to stash his boat down this other way, I think."
"Ain't you sure?" Chance asked.
Rosie shook her head. "I haven't been back here in a few years, ever since Uncle Edgardo disappeared."
"What?" Lance said. "He disappeared, too?"
"There's bad things in these woods," Rosie explained. "Snakes and such. My father says he likely ran off with a pretty waitress. Who knows what happened. You two wait here. I'll scout ahead down this bitty side path, take a little look."
Rosie pushed ahead down the barely-there path.
"I don't want to get lost," Lance confided to his brother.
"Like Hansel and Gretel in the woods," Chance replied. "We might get cooked in a pie!"
Lance frowned. "The witch tried to cook them in an oven — but there weren't no pie that I recall."
A moment later, Rosie called out, "I found it! The Dead River, and my uncle's boat!"
They followed the sound of her voice and soon stared at a battered, old, upside-down canoe. It had been pulled ashore and propped up against a tree. Vines grew over it, like the arms of a green octopus. Two paddles lay on the ground beside it.
"I sure don't know about this," Lance said, doubtfully.
"Aw, it'll be fun," Chance stated. And soon enough, they were floating in the canoe on the Dead River that trickled, ever so slowly, into Dismal Swamp. Lance and Chance paddled. Rosie sat in the front.
The river was still, nearly stagnant. It was hardly a river at all. More like a tired, old body of water that only wanted to lie down and sleep. It stank of decay and rotted leaves. Once in a while, a bird called. A faint splash signaled an animal entering the water, a gator or water rat or who knows what. The leaves of a bush trembled for an instant, quivering in the stillness.
It was, to the twins, a silence that felt like danger, of bad things about to happen. "Somebody got it right when they named this place Dismal," Lance observed. A feeling of dread burrowed deep into his bones.
Still the boys paddled on, carving through the dark, shallow water.
At last, they entered Dismal Swamp. Lance rested the paddle across his lap. He tilted his head.
"You tired already, brother?" Chance teased.
"Shhh. Hear that?" Lance whispered.
Rosie and Chance leaned forward, aching to hear. CRACK, CRACK, SPLASH! It was the sound of distant thunder. Lance looked up through a small gap in the overhanging trees. The sky was clear. Not a cloud. Then another sound reached them, a sound that was hard to describe. It was like a mournful song, a desolate groan — wind in the darkness — carrying all the sorrow of the world in its arms.
"I have a bad feeling," Rosie said, turning around. The boys saw Rosie's white, ghost-like face. She shivered. And because of that — because of what they saw in her eyes — Lance and Chance felt a sharp jab of fear, too.
CRACK again, louder this time. Nearer. And again came the high-pitched, waterlogged, pitiful cry.
Chance whispered, "Whatever's making that noise, it's just up around the bend, beyond those mangrove trees. I say we tie off. I don't like it out here on the open water."
A pull of the paddle, then another, and the boat eased into the shore, obscured by a blanket of hanging moss.
"Let's sneak up real quiet," Chance said.
"And watch out for snakes, Rosie," Lance warned. "The yellow-backed ones can kill you with just one bite."
Excerpted from Swamp Monster by James Preller, Iacopo Bruno. Copyright © 2015 James Preller. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 PLUNK, SPLAT, GLORP, SPLURGE ...,
2 SWAMP PET,
3 THE LITTLE MONSTER,
4 ROSALEE SERENA RUIZ,
5 THUNDER IN THE WOODS,
6 THE CREATURE OF THE SWAMP,
7 UNDER THE WATER,
8 THE HUNT,
9 FULL DARK,
10 THE CHASE,
12 THE HARD BARGAIN,
ABOUT THE AUTHORS,