Stephanie has a whole underwear drawer full of trouble.
A week ago, Stephanie's biggest problem was finding enough time to complete her homework and study for her Mathletes competition. Now, thanks to her big-mouth brother, Zeke, she has to deal with magical toilet brushes, sinister talking cats, nearsighted sea serpents, singing custodians, feminist pirates, runty freedom fighters, and all the cottony-white weirdness of Underwhere—the world beneath our own where people wear their undies on the outside of their clothes.
Dr. Prufrock's Wild Ride
Word problem: A brilliant and beautiful girl has only enough patience for three hours of irritation. Her annoying twin brother tells fibs about her for fifteen minutes the first night, twenty minutes the second night, twenty-five minutes the third night, and so on. How long will it take her to blow her top?
Never mind, I already know the answer.
My pain-in-the neck brother, Zeke, has already told you of our first adventures with the Undies (the people, not the unmentionables).
But before I report on what happened next, I've got to set the record straight. Typical Zeke, he's gotten it all wrong.
Not the part about the zombies and the mini-dinosaurs, or our vow to help recover some magical objects and free the people of Underwhere from the UnderLord. That's correct.
But he makes me sound like some kind of priss who cares more about hair conditioner than about saving the world.
And that's just not true.
Using the proper conditioner is an important part of hair care. But it's not as important as keeping some evil dwarf from taking over your planet, okay?
And I'm so not a priss. Zeke and our neighbor Hector are typical boys; they never stop to think. I'm the sensible one. The one who says, "Gee, maybe we shouldn't jump into that shark-infested water with hands full of raw steak."
Can I help it if I always know the right thing to do?
But back to what happened next.
We were just getting home from school—Zeke and I and our neighbor Hector—when a wild-haired old man ran up our driveway. He looked like some kind of scientist. The mad kind.
"I need your help!" he cried. "My artifact is missing, and I'm afraid the UnderLord might have taken it."
"Let's go!" shouted Zeke.
"Wait," I said. "Who are you?"
The old man smoothed his hair. "Oh, I'm Dr. J. Robert Prufrock, a friend of your great-aunt Zenobia."
"Good enough for me," said Zeke.
I grabbed his arm. "But how do we know he's really a friend of Great-aunt Zenobia?"
Zeke rolled his eyes. "Duh, because he said so."
"That's right," said Hector. "And if Dr. Prufrock doesn't know whose friend he is, who would?" Good old Hector. He's cute, but he's as bad as Zeke.
"Remember stranger danger'?" I said. "Hello? Have you guys even heard a word of those lectures we've had since kindergarten?"
Dr. Prufrock held up his hands. "Children, please. Every minute counts."
I crossed my arms. "We don't know you, and besides, we really should do our homework first."
"Steph!" cried Hector and Zeke together.
"Well, we should," I said.
It always happens—I'm right, but they gang up on me.
Hector's orange cat, Fitz, wound around my ankles and grumbled. "Mrrow reer row ree roww."
"You too, kitty cat?" I said.
The white-haired man fumbled in his coat pockets. "By Odin's elbows," he muttered, "we're running out of . . . ah!"
"Running out of ah?" said Zeke.
Dr. Prufrock held out a photo. "Now do you believe me?"
The picture showed a cave mouth and three really old people in khaki pants: Dr. Prufrock, some lady with a pinched face, and our great-aunt Zenobia.
"Looks like Indiana Jones's grandparents," said Hector.
"I resent that," said Dr. Prufrock. "Who's Indiana Jones?"
Zeke tapped the photo. "See, I told you. They're friends."
"Okay," I said. "But this better be quick."
Dr. Prufrock hustled us into his car, a dented gray thing. I brushed off the front seat carefully before getting in. Fitz hopped onto my lap.
With a roar, the car belched smoke and poked down the street.
This was not going to be quick.
Dr. Prufrock filled us in. "I need help, and I can't trust anyone outside our little circle."
He took the corner too sharply, and I was smushed into the side door.
"Of the three people in that photograph," he continued, "Zenobia is gone, and Amelia is in hiding. If I can't trust Zenny's family, whom can I trust?"
Zenny? I thought. Had they been boyfriend and girlfriend, finding love among the ruins?
Awww . . . how romantic. Even wrinkled love is kind of sweet.
"How can we help, Dr. Prufrock?" I asked.
"What do you know about the UnderLord?" said the old man.
He pulled into the oncoming lane to pass a school bus. Drivers honked and slammed on their brakes. Fitz's claws dug into my leg.
Zeke clung to the seat back. "He was trying to take over our world."
"By posing as the rapper Beefy D," Hector added.
"Suffering Socrates! It's worse than I thought," said the doctor.
Hector smirked. "And you didn't even hear him rap."
Distracted, Dr. Prufrock drove over the curb and sideswiped a trash can. Don't they ever make old people take driving tests? Honestly.
Then something struck me. "Wait, have you been to Underwhere?"
"With Amelia and Zenobia," he said. "That's where we found the artifacts."
"What artifacts?" said Zeke.
"The Throne, the Brush, and the Scepter," said the doctor. "And by all that's holy, they must not fall back into the UnderLord's hands."
He stomped on the brakes, and the car sputtered to a halt.
"Ah, home, sweet home."
Dr. Prufrock's house was a lot like him—tall, messy, and needing a new coat of paint. What is it about guys and dirt?
He led us through the front door and down a dusty hall. "I last saw it here, in the library."
We peeked into a room. Books lined the walls and rose from the floor in piles like ruined towers. A sea of papers lapped around them. Crusty dishes and coffee mugs sat everywhere—some with flies, some without. Rumpled clothes, empty shoe boxes, three chessboards, a stuffed anaconda, and a full suit of rusty armor completed the picture.
"Um, Dr. Prufrock?" I said.
"Are you sure you haven't just misplaced your artifact?"