Chapter 1: Sluggo and Nancy Work Together
“The key to a group project is to compliment someone into doing all the work,” Nancy announced, leaning back in her chair.
“That’s fine when it’s a project for a big group,” Sluggo protested. “But this one’s just the two of us. Neither of us will fall for that.”
“Those critical thinking skills are what make you the perfect person to do the writing for us.”
Five minutes of writing later, his hand froze.
“I’m not doing all the work on this,” he yelled, dropping the pencil like he’d been burned. It clattered to the floor. From the table near where it landed, Lyle shot a disgruntled look his way.
Nancy opened one eye and frowned at Sluggo with faint disapproval.
“I never said you had to,” she said, taking the paper from him and scanning it. “Though nice job on the paragraph you did write.”
Sluggo scowled at her.
“I mean it, Sluggo,” she interrupted, voice quieter than usual. Her shoulders, he noticed, were slumped. She sounded uncharacteristically shy, almost hesitant. “I’m not like you. I can’t just put words to paper like that.”
She looked up at him now, eyes pleading. “You know I only work so hard to get out of stuff like this... because you make it look easier than I ever could. Don’t you?”
Five minutes of writing later, Sluggo threw his pencil across the room.
“Nancy,” he bellowed. “I’m not doing all the work on this!”
“Well, I’m not either!” she shouted back, scuffing her chair on the floor loudly as she shifted her weight forward. From the table to their left, Lyle glowered at both of them.
“We’ll take turns,” Sluggo declared. “Trade-off after every sentence.”
“Fine!” Nancy agreed.
“One theme of this book was selfishness,” Sluggo began paragraph two.
“Yes.” Nancy added.
“That’s not a valid sentence,” Sluggo objected. “Nouns and verbs required.”
“Yes it was.” Nancy amended.
A brief scuffle broke out, in which neither of them was the obvious victor. Six more pencils fell on the ground, and both Sluggo and Nancy somehow ended up there as well. Tussling continued until a throat-clearing noise from above interrupted the skirmish.
“You two are a complete embarrassment.” Lyle had gotten up from his own table and was standing over them, looking annoyed and vaguely menacing. “Can you seriously not finish a one-page assignment without a crisis?”
He bent down to pick up the sheet of paper Sluggo had been working on, which had also made its way to the floor at some point. His eyes swept over the page with clinical detachment. “You’ve barely made any progress, while my group finished ages ago. If you just spent your time actually working, instead of whatever it is you’re doing, you could have moved on to the homework, but instead you’re--”
“Hold on,” Sluggo stopped him. “Your group’s already done?”
“Of course we are,” Lyle sniffed. “This isn’t rocket sci--”
“You can actually think of things to say that fast?” Nancy’s voice sounded awed. “People can do that?”
Lyle flushed. “It really isn’t hard,” he said, a bit embarrassed, as he sat down at their table and reached for something to write with.
“Wow,” said Sluggo, looking over his shoulder.
“That’s incredible,” said Nancy, pulling her chair back upright and settling in.
“Just remarkable,” Sluggo yawned, making himself a comfortable resting place in his arms.
“ZZZ,” said Nancy.
Lyle finished in about ten minutes, writing the last sentence with a flourish. Easy. He smirked and tucked the report under Sluggo’s elbow without waking him up.
It’s pitiful, he thought to himself as he stood, dusting eraser shreds off his pant legs. Those two really have no idea how to collaborate.
Chapter 2: Sluggo and Nancy Help a Friend
“So Agnes has lost her notebook?” Sluggo asked.
“Yes,” said Nancy.
“And you think I can help you find it, why?” Sluggo asked.
“Just get up already,” she chirped, yanking him up from under the tree. Sluggo frowned as he looked back at his spot. He had been very comfortable.
“We’ve retraced her steps everywhere she was except recess,” Nancy explained, once she’d tugged him back into the school and down a hall. “You’re the only one who had recess with her today, so you can help us remember what she was doing.”
“I’m supposed to remember what she was--” Sluggo paused, mid-incredulity. He actually did remember what Agnes had done at recess today.
“Why can’t she tell you herself?” he asked instead, slowly.
Nancy just shook her head, almost imperceptibly, which Sluggo interpreted as she would, if she weren’t having a breakdown right now.
They stepped out onto the other side of the school, where the playground sat enclosed by a fence. In the corner of the lot was the tree he’d spent recess under. Sluggo eyed it with longing. It wasn’t as good as the tree at the front of the school, but it was very solid.
“She was working on a ritual for magic powers,” he told Nancy.
Nancy nodded, unsurprised.
“It started out on the swing set.” He pointed towards it. Agnes had definitely had the notebook then, because Sluggo had seen her writing in it and looking furtively out at the rest of the playground, planning.
They walked over and kicked the wood chips around under the swings to make sure a notebook hadn’t been buried underneath.
“I think Part One was some kind of potion making.” He’d seen Agnes sneak over to the low swampy area in the corner of the playground with a stick. She’d cast blades of grass into a puddle and stirred it slowly, eyes full of meaning.
They looked on top of and underneath the bench next to the puddles to see if it could have been left there. There was no notebook, but Sluggo did find a tennis ball which he pocketed even though it was a little muddy. Free tennis ball.
“She went to summon a moon spirit next,” he said, getting back up to his feet and patting down his pants. He knew this because she’d stood at the top of the slide and yelled “MOON SPIRIT, I SUMMON YOU” towards the skies. It had been around the three-quarters point of recess.
They climbed up and stood at the top of the playset. There was a tunnel to their right, and a tic-tac-toe board to the left. No notebook was in sight. Empty, the whole playground had a kind of eerie air to it. He could feel a bit of a breeze from up here. The swings were swaying with it, just a little.
“The final part was the summoning circle,” he said.
There really wasn’t any place the notebook could have been hiding on the four-square blacktop, but they went and looked down at it anyway. Agnes had covered it with chalk moons and stars. There were what looked to be at least two twilight-themed unicorns. Sluggo squinted at them.
Then he looked up at Nancy.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked.
Nancy made a face. “I don’t need a reason to help a friend,” she scoffed, affronted.
“I mean, why are you doing this like this?” He put his hands behind his head, the way he always did when he was being reflective. “It’s much more your style to find her a new notebook, or to try to cheer her up until she forgets all about it.” He scratched behind one ear. “This isn't an easy workaround kind of fix.”
Nancy was quiet for a moment, then surprised him by being honest.
“Do you remember that English assignment where we had to write a story with a moral at the end?”
Sluggo nodded. He remembered his own story, “The Boy Who Was Interrupted Too Many Times.” He remembered Nancy’s story, “Why I Am Never Wrong.”
“When Agnes went to give me her story, it looked like she was in pain,” Nancy started, looking out at the playground as she spoke “She really didn’t want to do it, even though it was for a grade. I didn’t understand it at first until I recognized the expression. She was being forced to share something precious.”
“That notebook is everything to her,” she went on. “It’s full of worlds and characters that she treasures more than anything.”
“It’s precious to her like cake is precious for me. Or like donuts are for me. Or donut holes. Éclairs.”
“Anyway, that’s why I let her keep her story and took a nap instead of doing the constructive feedback assignment we were supposed to do. Plus, she’d written like two thousand pages. No way I was reading that.”
Something lit up in the back of Sluggo’s head as he listened. A nap. He’d forgotten. Between Agnes’ potion-making and the moon summoning, he’d managed to fall asleep for a few minutes. It had been her “HEAR ME, CELESTIAL GUARDIANS” that had woken him up in the first place.
She’d have had to have walked from the puddle corner to the ladder to get up to the slide anyway. If she was going to be using both her arms to climb, it would make sense to store the notebook somewhere safe ahead of time. And to get to the ladder, the fastest path took you... He grabbed Nancy’s sleeve and pulled her with him as he stalked back towards the playset and wove in-between the climbing wall and the rope mesh to get underneath.
Wedged into the slats of the platform above them but hidden from outside view by the slide was a thin composition notebook. It stuck out from the ceiling incongruously, looking almost suspended mid-air. On the cover, it read: “PROPERTY OF AGNES. DO NOT READ. DO NOT STEAL.”
When they found her, Agnes was curled into a tiny ball, head tucked into her arms which were wrapped around her knees. Esther was awkwardly patting her on the shoulder in an effort at being comforting, but her biggest contribution was to glare at anyone who came too close to them. She glared at Sluggo when he came into the room.
“Special delivery!” Nancy chimed, holding the notebook out in front of her. Agnes lifted her head creakily. She looked at them with bleary eyes and blinked as recognition hit her.
“You found it!” she cried, happily snatching it out of Nancy’s hands. Then, instantly suspicious: “You didn’t read it, did you?”
“Nope,” said Nancy.
Agnes’ eyes narrowed.
“One of my characters says ‘nope’ on page sixteen,” she said in a low voice.
“Thank you, Nancy,” said Esther solemnly.
“Thank you too, Sluggo,” Sluggo said. Esther glared at him, but Nancy surprised him once again.
“Sluggo was a big help,” she said, without any trace of scheming. “He was the one who finally tracked it down.”
Esther seemed doubtful, but let it go. Agnes, to her right, was glowing with relief and happiness. Watching her, Sluggo didn’t regret getting up from his resting spot anymore.
Agnes looked up at him, her eyes warm.
“Thanks, Sluggo,” she said, rich sincerity in her voice.
“Happy to help,” he smiled back at her.
“One of my characters is happy on page thirty,” she said in a low voice, eyes narrowed.
She kept her narrowed eyes on him as he left the room, and then watched on through the window as he made his way out to a tree in front of the school building and settled down underneath. It was suspicious how relaxed he looked.
Chapter 3: Sluggo and Nancy at Christmas
Christmas, this year:
“I don’t want anything from you for Christmas,” Nancy declared.
“Why?” Sluggo asked. “You think I can’t get you something nice?”
“You’d probably give me something handmade. The only good handmade gifts are food.”
“You give Fritzi handmade gifts every year!”
“Yes,” Nancy sighed with self-admiration. “I’m such a thoughtful niece.”
“Besides,” she continued. “It’s not like I need a reminder that you like me.”
Sluggo glanced up at her from where he was sprawled out on the ground, hands behind his head.
“Who wouldn’t like me?” she finished with aplomb.
Sluggo rolled his eyes.
Christmas, a few years ago:
There was a gremlin in front of him. She was tiny, with a massive mess of unruly hair. She looked like she’d been hosed down and shoved into presentable clothes for the first time in her life fifteen minutes ago. She was mad.
“My aunt says I have to give you this,” said the gremlin, thrusting a present into his face. It was a very nicely wrapped present, which made Sluggo convinced that she’d had nothing to do with it.
He took it and opened it in front of her, because he was something of a gremlin himself. It was a t-shirt with a cute character on it. Nice, but not really his style.
He looked back up at the gremlin, who was shifting her weight back and forth from foot to foot and looking antsy.
“What?” he asked.
“What did you get for me?” she asked.
He racked his brain for anything. There was nothing he had to give her.
“This,” he said, handing the ribbon from the present back to her. It was the lowest effort present he could have gone with. She was never going to come back to his house again after this. It made him feel hollow with regret. He’d been beginning to wonder if they could be friends.
To his surprise, she took it without complaint.
“What’s it for?” she asked.
“Your hair,” he said, and mentally kicked himself right after. That was probably rude. That implied he thought her hair needed it, even though it definitely did. This was it for that friendship he’d been thinking about. She was going to yell at him and leave.
Instead, she tied it up around her head. Her hair looked just as bad as before, but now it had a bow on it.
“I just moved in last week,” she said, gruff for no reason. “You live here?”
It was pretty obvious that Sluggo lived there, he thought, standing in the doorway entrance in his pajamas. He nodded anyway.
“Ok, bye,” the gremlin said, turning around abruptly. She stomped stiffly down the path leading up to his house. When she reached the sidewalk, she paused. Her hands went up to her hairline. He thought she was going to pull the ribbon off, but she only adjusted it.
She was heading down his street now, getting close to the corner that turned out of view. He was watching her the back of her head get smaller and smaller and then he was stepping out into the frozen slush on his front porch with bare feet.
“Wait!” he called after her. Graying snow crunched up between his toes. It was colder and sharper than he’d expected, but something about it made him feel more awake than he’d felt in the entire eight months he’d been living with his uncles. His breath steamed the air in front of him. “You forgot to tell me your name!”