Maddie found herself laying across John’s knees with Crip panting at her feet at the bottom of Humbom. The building’s little balconies sparkled in light. Silent walkers tramped around them as if they weren’t there. Cars raced up and down. Orange cabs honked. The air smelled gritty and full of exhausts.
“We’re below the balcony,” Maddie said, her voice quiet.
“It’s just a street,” John replied. “I’ll bet the trampoline is back there.” He stared down the narrow gray road, and Maddie squinted, trying to get a better look into the distance.
Maddie grabbed John’s sleeve. “Gratchan!”
Gratchan, who was on the other side of the street, leered at them. His fat black lips curled into a wide grin. His round eyes glittered.
Crip began to growl.
“Come on over, guys!” Gratchan rasped, his voice very clear in spite of the racket of the traffic.
“No way!” John said and took hold of Crip’s collar.
Gratchan began to laugh. The sound of his voice came from behind them. Crip whirled around, dragging John with him. Maddie span around too. Another three Gratchans, three feet away, were gripping their bellies, rocking with hilarity.
“There are four of them!” Maddie clapped a hand over her mouth.
“Yes,” the nearby Gratchan said. “Below the Balcony I am here, and I am over there, and I am everywhere.” Laughter pierced the air.
Overhead they glimpsed the faces of the humbles gaping down from their terrace.
“Let’s go,” Maddie said. “There’s only one of them on the other side of the road.
John put his hand on her shoulder. “No, Maddie. We can’t escape that way.”
Maddie shrugged free of his hand and sprang from the curb. She dashed wildly across the road. Crip began to bark.
“Maddie,” John yelled. “Get back here!”
An orange cab screeched to a halt barely missing Maddie. The driver honked and smiled. Maddie couldn’t believe it. It was another Gratchan. She stared into the window of a bus that careened around her. It was full of Gratchans waving at her. She didn’t know what to do. “John,” she gasped and stood frozen in the middle of the road.
“Stay there,” John shouted, and he darted through the traffic with Crip limping next to him.
“They’re everywhere!” Maddie said.
“I know,” John said. “We’re below the balcony. Come on,” there was a break in the traffic. “Run!” They hurried to the other side.
It didn’t look any different over here than where they’d just been except that they could better see the humbles above them on the balcony. The Gratchans had disappeared.
“Look,” Maddie said. Humbles were coming out of their apartments and staring down at the street. “There’s Roy!” she said and pointed to one wearing royal blue. He was known for his kindness.
“That’s Jig!” John said, a note of hope creeping into his voice as they watched a brightly colored humble dancing up and down on a balcony two floors above Princess and Duckess.
Out on the balcony at the corner of Humbom, another humble leaned over the rail, his eyes big with concern. “Is that Gent?” John asked.
“I think so,” Maddie said.
The light around them began to get dim.
“The battle with the grrcks is about to begin.” Maddie said and felt her arms go cold. “The humbles must be coming out to watch.”
“They helped us before,” John said.
“But that wasn’t below the balcony, John. That was in the halfmoat. They’re petrified of being down here.”
“So am I,” John said.
The humbles waved their arms and yelled something, but their voices faded to nothing.
Maddie and John began to walk in the direction of the trampoline. John stopped abruptly. “Crottons!” he gasped. What had seemed to be gloom in the distance was an army marching towards them. The trampoline might as well have been a thousand miles away.
John and Maddie stepped into the alcove of a shop. They made Crip stand behind them.
“Maybe, they’ll go by us,” Maddie said hopefully.
“No,” John said. “They won’t. We’re their targets.”
“We have to face them, then!”
Maddie and John stepped out into the open. “Help us!” Maddie shouted at the silent walkers, the people they’d seen from above when they’d first arrived on the balcony. They’d known there was something odd about them. It seemed as if they were unable to see or hear anything or anyone. The increasing crotton-stench didn’t even make them sneeze.
“Prince!” Maddie yelled up to the humble who was now perched on the railing next to Duckess. They resembled two brightly colored balls, one green and one pink. Their webbed feet perched on the narrow bar. “Prince! What are we supposed to do?”
Duckess and Prince waved their arms in the air. “Crottons! Crottons!” they mouthed.
“We know!” Maddie cried. The approaching beasts were marching in columns, their wiry legs moving like one body, their antennae twitching up and down. “Look in the Book!” Maddie shouted to the humbles. “Hurry! Tell us what to do!”
“They can’t hear us!” John said.
“Look in the Book!” Maddie yelled again. The humbles chattered. Crip began to bark. Then they saw Gratchan, bigger than before, behind the humbles.
“Get off that handrail,” John and Maddie both yelled. “Go inside! Get down!”
The humbles continued to wave their little arms in the air.
Gratchan smacked his hands as loud as a thunderclap.
“Oh dear!” Maddie groaned.
The startled humbles leaped off the balcony and dropped like rocks.