“Agreed.” They shook hands.
They continued on; the tunnel ended abruptly at a brick wall. The green cable, however, soon pointed the way. It led to a small shaft just to the side of the wall, where an iron ladder gave access to the darkness below. They climbed down carefully; it deposited them in a cylindrical tunnel, easily twenty feet tall from floor to ceiling, that appeared to play host to a congregation of the city’s electrical wiring. The green cable spooled innocuously down from the shaft and became intermixed in the thousands of other multihued cables that sp
layed along the tunnel floor. A metal maintenance walkway had been bolted to the wall of the cylinder, and it was this that Prue and Curtis followed, always keeping an eye on their little green cable.
The cylinder was as straight as an arrow. At one point, Curtis said he could hear the rushing of water above them—though it was hard to tell. One thing was clear: They were crossing under the Willamette River, heading farther east. Both Prue and Curtis were of North Portland stock. The Southeast side was an undiscovered country to them, though they’d both spent plenty of afternoons as younger children mooning over the IMAX at the Museum of Science and Industry. Beyond that, it was a no-man’s-land as far as they were concerned.
They nearly missed it; thankfully Septimus had been scouting ahead, keeping a keen eye on the meandering cable. At a curve in the tunnel, it suddenly broke away from the mass of wiring and snaked up toward a ladder on the wall of the cylinder. Climbing this, they found themselves in another low tunnel that crawled along for what felt like several miles. Finally, a glimmer of light could be seen in the distance; it was the scant sunlight allowed between the cracks of a weathered old wooden door. Opening it, they found themselves bathed in daylight, breathing the clear, crisp air of the Outside.
Except that it wasn’t quite so idyllic, their reunion with the aboveground; they found themselves in the middle of a junk heap that extended as far as the eye could see. Tall towers of discarded rubbish were piled high in every direction: rusted, emptied-out car chassis, refrigerators with their doors yawning open, hubcaps, and bottle caps. There were reams of abandoned National Geographic magazines papering the ground; there were half-chewed, one-eyed stuffed animals, orphaned from their owners. White plastic bags floated like jellyfish on the air, and the ground was pockmarked with potholes, filled to the brim with oil-iridescent water. There was barely any snow remaining; the little that did was black with soot.
“Lovely place, the Outside,” said Septimus. “Nice to be home?” Prue glared at him, to which he replied, “Squeak.”
Curtis gave them both an unenthused look. “Let’s find this guy,” he said. “And get out of here.”
They all took the opportunity to take in their surroundings; it didn’t seem like the sort of place anyone would want to hang out in for too long. The horizon was all but blotted out by the towers of debris. It was clear: This had been the source of the building materials for the City of Moles. The green cable, the thing that had been their lifeline for the entirety of their journey to the surface, ended here. A stump of a post jutted from the ground; bolted to it was a small gray power box. It was to this that the cable had been tethered.
“I guess he could be anywhere now, huh?” noted Prue.
“Yep. Any ideas where to start looking?” asked Curtis.
“I guess the immediate vicinity would be a good starting point,” said Prue.
Curtis nodded. “Great idea.”
And so they began searching for this elusive architect, the one with two golden hooks for hands, so that they might convince him to rebuild some integral part of a mechanical boy prince—all at the behest of a clairvoyant, sentient tree. Prue, since first being introduced to Wildwood, had learned to not consider the minutiae of things, but rather take each episode as it came. Otherwise, she figured, the ridiculousness might fry some essential lobe of her brain—the sensible part. Taken as a whole, their quest seemed fairly ridiculous, but there wasn’t really anything strange about looking for someone in the midst of a waste dump. At least, she didn’t think so.
“Mr. Architect!” called Curtis as he began to scale one of the mountains of junk. Septimus was winnowing in and out of towers of metallic bric-a-brac, squeaking with all the energy he could muster.
“Esben!” yelled Prue, getting into the search as well. She was peering into the windows of a disemboweled Ford Focus. “Esben Clampett!”
He was not in the stack of cars; nor was he in the tower of washing machines that seemed to balance impossibly one on top of the other. He wasn’t in the claw-foot bathtub filled with thick, muddy water. And he wasn’t beneath the A-frame of corrugated metal that made, to Curtis’s estimation, a pretty nifty fort—it did look like it had given someone shelter for a time; the black remnants of a campfire marked the ground beneath it.
An hour passed. Then two. Prue was pushing aside a broken screen door to get at a little cavity in a heap of jumbled, broken bicycles when she heard Septimus mewling loudly from afar.
She looked up. The rat was standing at the far end of the dump, in the trough between two building-tall piles of garbage. He was pointing at the far horizon and squeaking with all the determination of a rocking chair in need of a good oiling.
Wiping off her jeans, she jogged over to where a pile of old tube televisions made a kind of staircase, and there she began to climb to where Septimus stood. “What is it?”
Curtis, hearing the commotion, found his way to their side. Septimus continued to squeak, running in circles and flailing his small arms in the direction of the city.
The two kids were flummoxed. “I’m not sure what you’re getting at, Septimus,” said Curtis icily. “I think you’re taking this whole squeaking thing too far.”
Finally, the rat stopped his game of charades and looked at Prue and Curtis with his hands on his hips. “So I can talk now?” he asked.
Prue rolled her eyes. “Yes, Septimus. You can talk.”
“I think we have our man,” he said, pointing.
From the height at which they stood, they could see that the junk heap ended just a few hundred feet on; there, a railroad track created a boundary between the dump and what appeared to be an amusement park. Prue was amazed that they hadn’t heard the noise before. Now it was clear: The singsong lilt of a pump organ colored the late afternoon air. The lights of the Ferris wheel were just winking on, and the sound of the park’s whirring, churning machines could be heard amid the occasional shouts from the few attendants who milled like ants about the grounds. In the center of the amusement park was a giant circus tent, colored garishly blue and yellow; a sign in front of the entrance boldly advertised the evening’s main event in a typeface so big as to be perfectly legible even from where the three of them stood. It read THE AMAZING, THE INCREDIBLE, THE ONE AND ONLY: ESBEN THE GREAT!
Return to Childhood; A Cog in the Hand
The meeting was quickly convened at the cottage. Carol stood at the fireplace mantel, while the younger kids streamed down the wooden stairs from the attic; the older kids, those who’d been diligently setting about doing their afternoon chores, came in from the outside and stood, curious, in the large family room.
“Children,” said Carol, “we have some fascinating news to impart. Yesterday, while joining Michael and Cynthia on their trapping rounds, our newest family member Elsie Mehlberg found something. It was something that exists beyond the Periphery.”