The Wikkeling


By Steven Arntson

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In the enormous city of the Addition, all children are SAFE, SECURE, and SUPERVISED, and are watched by cameras even while they sleep. Henrietta is unlikable at her competitive school until she meets Gary and Rose. They all share something in common: headaches with an unknown cause. Then, late one night, Henrietta makes a startling discovery when she finds a wounded cat in the attic above her bedroom. Soon after, a series of strange occurrences follow, including the appearance of a threatening creature with long, waxy fingers, who calls itself the Wikkeling. With the help of an ancient Bestiary, will Henrietta and her friends solve these mysteries before the Wikkeling finally catches them? Age: Middle Reader 8-12



When a book first sprouts, it feels quite independent, but it is quickly humbled by its needs and indebted for its very existence to those who helped it. Firstly, a thank-you to the members of my writing group for looking at my earliest efforts. My agent, Jenni Ferrari-Adler, went far above and beyond the call of duty in helping me revise and in taking up the cause of the book. My editors Teresa Bonaddio, Marlo Scrimizzi, and Kelli Chipponeri were of tremendous aid in believing in the project and bringing the characters to life through numerous patient rounds of revision. I’d also like to thank Daniela for the beautiful illustrations and Frances Soo Ping Chow for the wonderful cover and book design—they’ve placed me in the enviable position of having my name attached to something much more beautiful than I’d ever imagined. More than anyone, however, I’m indebted to my wife Anne Mathews, who has, during the course of our marriage and friendship, been the greatest influence on how I think and what I think about. Without our countless conversations about life and the living of it, and without her example, this book would not have been conceived. She also gave the manuscript its first real copyedit, caused the sentences to become readable, and pointed out several directions in which I had forgotten to look (as all who know me know, and she best of all, my eyes are very poor). Thank you, for reading.

poor kitty!
The Wikkeling chased you
From city to country
And back again, too.
It won’t rest. It won’t weary.
It will kill you, poor kitty,
And then all those like you,
And all those you knew.

Jump up to my attic
Poor kitty, and pause–
Rest here. Recover,
And sharpen your claws.
I’ll give you refuge
For I understand
What it is to be hunted,
Unwelcome, unwanted,
Pursued and tormented
And fainting from fear
Every night,
Every night,
Every night of the year.

–Anonymous, from Aristotle Alcott’s
Riddles and Rhymes of Olden Times


The Old City lies on a long, low hill. It is dangerous and dilapidated. The buildings are crumbling, moss grows in the streets, and garbage festers in the gutters. There are rumors that people live here secretly, breaking into abandoned apartments and living wretched, illegal lives.

Adjoining the Old City is the Addition, which lies on a vast, level plain. The Addition sparkles into the haze, its streets as straight as grocery store aisles, its buildings as shiny as pop cans. The Addition contains countless homes, businesses, schools, and hospitals. Skyscrapers rise in lanky rectangles. Sprawling suburban chessboards meet the broad blocks of industry. The Addition is so large that airports operate to fly people from one part to another.

Between the Old City and the Addition runs a seam, where the decrepit hill meets the youthful plain. Few people know it, but this seam is the kind of place where unexpected things happen. Invisible doors and windows open. Unknown creatures appear. Even now, something strange is afoot.

Efficient Education

“SENSIBLE STUDENTS SUCCEED SPLENDIDLY!” said Ms. Span, a primly dressed teacher sitting behind a computer at the front of the class, her thick, black eyebrows arching over the top of her reading glasses.

“Yes, Ms. Span!” said the students. They sat in neat rows that filled the room, faces lit yellow from the light of their own computers.

On the wall behind Ms. Span, a large projection displayed the sentence she had just recited. “Let’s begin today’s focus on the letter S,” she said, her voice just loud enough to be heard above the whirring of the fans in all of the computers. The students began to type. Next to each child’s screen, a plastic cradle held a cell phone hooked to the school’s network. The children’s practice sentences were instantly graded and transmitted to their parents’ phones, ensuring that each parent knew, at each moment, how their child was scoring.

Additionally, all sentences were tabulated, in terms of accuracy and speed, into a data pool describing the class, the school, the district, and the system as a whole. At this moment, every child everywhere was typing “SENSIBLE STUDENTS SUCCEED SPLENDIDLY,” allowing every school to be instantly ranked in comparison to every other school. On Competency Exam days these rankings were used to determine whether or not the school was functioning properly, or whether it should be shut down. Today, fortunately, was not the Competency Exam. It was a Practice Test.

Ms. Span flipped through the students’ responses on her screen, checking them. She was on edge, even though it was just practice. The thing about Practice Tests was that they led inevitably to the Competency Exam, and if things went poorly then, Ms. Span could be classified a Bad Teacher and lose her job.

“Very good, Andreas,” she muttered. “Very good, Sasha.”

Ms. Span projected the next sentence.

“SENSIBLE STUDENTS ARE SAFE, SECURE, AND SUPERVISED!” recited the students, some beginning to type as they spoke. Because the exercises were timed, there was little opportunity to fix mistakes. Ms. Span reviewed the responses again. Her computer screen reflected on her glasses, rankings appearing there in columns.

She glanced at the bottom of the stats and winced at the names there, especially at the one at the very bottom. She frowned. She didn’t want to stop the lesson, but the whole class was getting dragged down.

“Miss Gad-Fly,” she called out frostily. All the children turned toward the rear of the room to look at the object of their teacher’s attention. Some of them snickered. Miss Gad-Fly sat in the back row near the door. She seemed lost in thought, and didn’t notice the attentions of the room until Ms. Span said, “Henrietta!”

Being singled out scornfully in class wasn’t unusual for Henrietta. Wherever she was and whatever she was doing on any given day, she found herself in a similarly unenviable position. If a poll were to be taken this afternoon by her school, asking all the students in all the grades who was least popular, Henrietta Gad-Fly would win. And that would be the only thing she won all year.

Henrietta looked a little like a brick—her face and body were squat, thick rectangles. Her ruddy skin was prone to pimples, and flushed red when she was embarrassed, like now. Her small, black, beady eyes were set closely together, which lent her a confused and peevish expression that often caused people to explain things to her twice, and then scold her. Her thin eyebrows made her look a little surprised, which didn’t help matters.

And yet Henrietta was not a stupid, confused, petulant block. Or at least, she didn’t feel like one. Inside, she was just herself—a person to whom she’d scarcely yet been introduced.


The end of the title was obscured by a little piece of paper. It was a yellow sticky note attached to the screen. Henrietta leaned forward. The square contained a short message scrawled in a beginner’s handwriting.

henRift and andi

Henrietta pulled it off of the screen as the movie segued to show Henrift Andi as a little boy, still wearing a stovepipe hat, planting an apple orchard. Henrietta crumpled the note and dropped it in the trash next to the carrel. She thought the kindergartener who had just departed was most certainly the culprit, and she didn’t want the tiny girl to get in trouble for vandalism.

Nutrition arrived on the conveyor belt: a cube of corn bread smothered in starchy gravy, some small yellowish carrots with margarine dip, a pile of corn chips, and a glass of apple soda.

“Soon after,” said the narrator’s calm but engaging voice, “Henrift Andi developed a new breed of apple, which he called Scrumptious!”

Henrietta dipped a corn chip in the margarine. As she brought it to her mouth, a little paper airplane flew over the carrel wall to land squarely atop her corn bread and gravy. On one wing was written:


It had been thrown by Clarence or Clarice. Such airplanes were a common part of Henrietta’s History and Nutrition periods. Since most of the kids had watched all of the history movies already, and because they weren’t getting graded, they made mischief of one kind or another. Henrietta plucked the craft from her lunch and was about to toss it into the garbage when she stopped suddenly. She felt a strange sensation, like someone was standing next to her. It was a creepy feeling, and it made her heart skip a beat: it was the feeling that preceded one of her headaches.

A moment later, the headache began. It wasn’t too bad yet. It was still small. But it might get worse. Henrietta understood, though her parents had never said it aloud, that a headache could get bad enough to kill her. She was one of those kids who might not make it. She might not grow up.

Henrietta fished her pills from her pocket and ate three of them. She waited in perfect stillness, one hand still holding the forgotten airplane. After an unknown amount of time, she noticed that the credits for FOUNDER, HUMANITARIAN, FORWARD THINKER were rolling past on the screen. She turned and saw her classmates lining up behind Ms. Span. Carefully, she stood and joined them.

Henrietta had suffered headaches for a few years, since she and her parents had moved into the old house they lived in now—in fact, her mother thought it was the house’s fault, and the doctor they’d seen had agreed, saying kids raised in old homes sometimes became House Sick. The cause was unknown, but something about those old places was not good for children. Maybe some kind of toxin. They were told they should move, but unfortunately they didn’t have enough money to live anywhere else at present.

Henrietta’s headaches, though supposedly caused by her house, seemed to strike her everywhere but at home, and they always followed the same progression. First, it seemed for an instant like someone was standing next to her. Then the headache began behind her eyes, and either dissipated or grew. Henrietta either felt better or went to the hospital.

Today, she felt better. Though she was hungry because she’d eaten nothing during History and Nutrition, relief swept through her when she returned to the classroom. Such moments of recovery constituted the greatest joys of her life. She was so happy that when Ms. Span resumed the typing practices, she produced exactly what she was supposed to, and didn’t become distracted.




These were Honk Ads, activated by all of the drivers whose vehicles were now stuck behind the bus. Each car horn blared a different advertisement, many of them responding to the presence of the school bus by advertising to the children inside.


Henrietta heard squealing tires as commuters tried to merge into other lanes, and the horns overlapped into nonsense.

The boy froze. He hadn’t realized that this would happen, apparently.

“Don’t worry,” Henrietta whispered to him through the din. “You’ll just get a warning. He doesn’t want to be off schedule.”

The boy shot Henrietta a worried glance as the driver, a large man wearing a yellow jumpsuit, walked back along the aisle, glaring at every pair of children along the way. When he reached the new boy he frowned down at him and said, “Name.”

“I forget!” said the boy, grinning ridiculously.

The driver produced a scanner from his belt, pointed it at the boy, and looked at the screen. “Gary,” he said.

“Scary!” quipped a child further back on the bus.

“Scary Gary!” said someone else.

Scaredy Gary!” said a third student.

Hilarity ensued. Henrietta laughed too, even though she felt bad for the boy. She knew what it was like to be made fun of, but it also felt kind of good to make fun of someone else for a change.

“Okay, Mister,” said the driver. “I’m issuing you a warning for releasing your safety belt, and a detention for insubordination.” As he said this, he scribbled with a plastic stylus on the small screen of the scanner. Then he reached out, roughly rebuckled Gary’s straps, and lumbered back to the front, restarting the bus and entering traffic again. “IT’S TIME FOR A LURMY’S EGG SANDWICH!” one last Honk Ad announced.

“You shouldn’t have aggravated him,” said Henrietta.

“Thanks for telling me now,” Gary replied.

“Well, I didn’t know you were stupid,” Henrietta shot back. That was the end of their conversation.

Henrietta soon recognized the familiar streets of her neighborhood. Because her school was nestled into the Addition’s perfect grid of streets, the landmarks Henrietta watched for were older buildings, which signaled the closeness of the Old City. Instead of walls of shiny mirrored windows, the older buildings were dull concrete, stained with traffic exhaust. Henrietta’s parents often mentioned how ugly such buildings were, but Henrietta liked them because they meant she was almost home.

Usually she was the only one to disembark at her stop, but today as the bus rolled up, she heard another set of straps release as she released hers. When the door opened and she stepped into the aisle, Gary stood as well.

Henrietta tried not to look at him. She exited the bus and walked to the intersection as the driver stopped Gary and lectured him about the importance of safety. She crossed when the signal turned. Then she heard Gary’s voice rise over the din behind.

“I’m sorry!” he yelled. Was he talking to the bus driver or her? She didn’t wait to find out.


She awoke just before her alarm went off, thinking she’d heard a thumping sound somewhere in the house. She listened, but it didn’t repeat. She got out of bed and changed drowsily into her school clothes, blue pants and a red shirt with a yellow stripe down the back, designed for good visibility. Her room was lit dimly by her nightlight and her computer screen saver. The screen saver was a counting program. At the moment, it was displaying the number 36,548. When it reached 50,000 (in about a month), the computer would shut down and her parents would replace it.

From the other side of the wall, she heard her parents getting up. They were talking, and although the noise was muffled by the wall, Henrietta understood some of the conversation.

“. . . afford to stay if the other houses keep getting bigger,” said her mother.

“We’ve been over that,” said her father.

“Maybe it’s for the best. Get out of this place. Henrietta’s House Sickness—”

“It’s pointless. We’re stuck. And we don’t know it’s the house’s fault, anyway. It could all be for nothing.”

Their voices faded as they left the bedroom and moved down the hall into the kitchen.


That morning the seating arrangement for the remainder of the year was projected on the screen at the front of class. It had been created by integrating high scoring students with low scoring ones in the hope that low scorers would be positively influenced by their proximity to high scorers and improve the class average. Certain studies suggested that this could happen.

As a result of this reshuffling, Henrietta and Gary found themselves seated next to one another—the lowest scoring student and the highest. As everyone found their seats Ms. Span initiated the math session for the day, and a series of problems appeared at the front.

“Be fast and accurate,” she said.

The first problem was:

10 + 4 =

Henrietta typed “14,” and the next problem appeared:

25 + 13 =

Next to her, Gary grunted, as if physically trying to push through a pile of dirt to get to his answer. It seemed to cost him physically, which was odd, given his excellent grades.

“Good, Hiroki,” said Ms. Span, as she watched everyone’s progress on her screen.

Henrietta was just about to type “38,” when suddenly, she stopped. Her heart skipped a beat as she felt the strange sensation of someone standing next to her. Then the headache appeared.

She instantly forgot what was happening in the classroom as she reached into her pocket for her pill, popped it into her mouth, and swallowed. She clutched the edge of her desk with both hands as the headache grew.

“Are you okay?” said Gary, leaning toward her.

“I’m getting a headache,” Henrietta replied. The headache wobbled one way and then another, and then it tipped and fell behind her left eye, which temporarily went blind. The headache was now medium-sized.

“What’s going on back there?” said Ms. Span, removing her reading glasses to peer at the back of the room. Henrietta hadn’t noticed, but everyone was turned toward her.

“Henrietta has a headache,” said Gary.

“She has permission to see the nurse,” said Ms. Span. “The rest of you keep working. Don’t let her distract you.”

The headache was a yellow, pulsing ball. Each pulse got bigger, and she could see its brightness with her otherwise blind left eye. She stood and stumbled down the aisle of desks. As she exited the classroom, Ms. Span logged her out of the test by entering ILLNESS next to her student number. Gary appeared distracted as well, and Ms. Span decided that perhaps it would benefit Henrietta to have a little help. She scrolled to Gary’s name and logged him out, too.

“Gary,” she said, “please accompany Henrietta to the infirmary.”

Gary stood and followed Henrietta out. She seemed entirely oblivious to his presence as she stumbled through the empty hallway past other classrooms to the nurse’s office. She tilted her head forward to keep the headache from rolling around in her skull.

The school nurse, Ms. Morse, looked up from her computer as Henrietta and Gary entered. Ms. Morse was a kind, older woman who always seemed sincerely concerned about Henrietta and all the other children who came to her for help. As Henrietta entered, Ms. Morse asked, “How can I help you two?”

“Henrietta has a headache,” said Gary.

“How bad is it, Henrietta?” said Ms. Morse.

“Medium,” said Henrietta. Ms. Morse led her to a back room that contained several rows of closely spaced cots. Sometimes when Henrietta arrived other students were being treated, usually for turned ankles or bruised elbows, but today there was no one. Henrietta lay face down on the nearest cot, her forehead pressing into the cream-colored plastic pillow.

“Which eye?” said Ms. Morse.

“Left,” said Henrietta.

“Should I call your mom?”

“No.” Henrietta wanted the questioning to stop. It was distracting, and she needed to concentrate. She tilted her head further forward on the pillow, to try to pin the headache against her blacked-out eye.

“I’ll check back,” said Ms. Morse, and she left. There was a clatter of keys as she logged Henrietta and Gary into the infirmary.

Henrietta focused on the headache. Of all the abilities she’d acquired in life (walking, speaking, reading, writing) this was her most advanced. Over the past couple years, she’d become aware of every move of her headaches. She studied them with the intensity that a deer studies a mountain lion.

She kept the pulsing ball contained, and eventually it began to subside, shedding its layers. Finally, it melted to nothing.

The Red Drip

Henrietta sat before her computer that evening, but couldn’t concentrate on her homework. There was a lot going on that seemed more important than math. She thought about Gary and Rose, and the headaches they all shared. Until today, she’d felt alone. “House Sickness,” she mumbled to herself, her hands hanging motionless above her keyboard. She didn’t feel satisfied with that explanation, and her doubts surprised her—normally, she accepted what she was told, but this just didn’t add up. She looked around her room. If it was the house’s fault, why did she never get sick here?

She recalled Gary’s claim that he’d seen someone standing next to her at the onset of her headache that day. She, too, had sensed someone. Rather than “House Sickness,” it felt to Henrietta like “Outside Sickness,” as if something was waiting for them out there.

She surveyed her small room, its bland white walls, bed, and desk. She always complained about the place, but in fact, she felt safe here. She returned to her homework for a few moments, typing out “I will tread water until help arrives,” and “It is never too early to buy life insurance.”

On the other side of the wall, her parents had begun arguing.

The voices stopped eventually, and her mother entered, looking careworn. “Don’t forget we’re going to your grandmother’s tomorrow,” she said. “Set your alarm.”

“I will.”

“And wear your dress shoes.”

“I will.” Her uncomfortable black plastic dress shoes were already set out by the bedside table.

“Put your pajamas on, brush your teeth, and go to bed,” said her mother. Henrietta wouldn’t get tucked in tonight.

“Is the BedCam fixed?” said Henrietta, motioning toward the wall where the black BedCam she used to have had been replaced by a new gray one. Her mother frowned.

“They tried three different models, and all of them had the same problem. We’ll get it straightened out. Now, pack up your homework.” Her mother disappeared into the hallway, and through the wall Henrietta heard her enter the bedroom again.


Chirp. The sound came from her cell phone. She’d overslept! When she answered the call, her mother’s voice sounded simultaneously over the speaker and through the house from the kitchen. “Henrietta!”

“Sorry!” said Henrietta.

“Hurry up!”

“I’m hurrying.” Henrietta rushed into the hallway to find her mother already there. She gasped when she saw her daughter.

“Sweetie!” She reached out and took Henrietta’s hand, which was covered in rust-red dried blood. She’d forgotten to wash it off.

She jerked back. “I . . . cut myself,” she said. “Picking glass out of my shoe.”

“We have to clean it,” said her mother, “and bandage it. Let me—”


On Sale
Jun 14, 2011
Page Count
240 pages
Running Press Kids

Steven Arntson

About the Author

Steven Arntson lives in Seattle. He earned an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and currently divides his time between writing stories, composing and performing music, and teaching music and writing to high school and college students. He lives with his wife in an attic apartment in an old house with three cats and many bicycles. The Wikkeling is his first book for children.

Learn more about this author