Authors: Patricia Reilly Giff
A House of Tailors
Pictures of Hollis Woods
All the Way Home
Nory Ryan's Song
The Gift of the Pirate Queen
The Casey, Tracy & Company books
The Kids of the Polk Street School books
The Friends and Amigos books
The Polka Dot Private Eye books
Te Goner Gift
on February 18, 2008
It was only two lines, after all.
It could be a month, a day, minutes.
Maybe two trees in a bare winter field.
A kid scribbling.
A house number.
It was Sam's birthday, April Eleven.
That was a good thing, a great thing,
so why was he afraid of eleven?
Never mind being afraid of eleven right now. Tomorrow was his birthday. And where had they hidden his presents? Sam hadn't found a single one yet. He'd checked every drawer, every cabinet, under the beds, and even outside in the shed.
Only one place was left to search.
Could he do it?
He was skinny but tough. Of course he could.
He didn't bother with socks, just sneakers, and pulled on his jacket over his pajamas. He lifted his bedroom window that was two stories up, squinted out at the dark world, and felt for the pipe against the wall.
It was a crazy way to get to the attic, but the only way tonight. The attic pull-down door was in his grandfather's room next to his, and Mack was sound asleep by now.
Sam grinned; he pictured himself hopping around on Mack's bed, yanking down the overhead door, which would graze Mack's nose while Sam boosted himself up to the attic.
“What? What?” Mack would mutter in his sleep.
A riot. Too bad it had to be the pipe.
Sam swung himself out the window and gripped the pipe with his hands and knees. It was colder than he expected, icy. Imagine if Mack awoke in the morning to see him plastered to the side of the house, frozen solid.
He inched his way up to the attic window. Below, just beyond the shed, was the river, a narrow band of water; it slipped over the rocks, then swirled away so the rocks reappeared like turtle backs, shiny, ridged, and black.
It made him dizzy to look down. He closed his eyes. People who drove along the road in front hardly realized that a finger of the Mohawk River bubbled along behind his building. All they saw were the windows of the three stores: Mack's Woodworking Shop; Onji's Deli; Kerala House, Anima's Indian restaurant; and their apartments above.
Sam leaned his head against his raised arms and felt the stone wall with the tips of his sneakers.
Maybe he should scramble back inside.
No, he was tough.
Slowly he turned his head; the pipe vibrated. Not a light on in any of the three apartment windows. They slept like hibernating bears.
He boosted himself up a couple of feet. Night Cat was
somewhere below, meowing up at him, Night Cat, ancient, crabby, waiting to be let in downstairs. “Wait a minute, will you?” he whispered. “You want to wake everyone?”
He raised one hand to feel the blistered paint of the wooden sill, and stretched to press his palm against the attic window. It slid up easily under his hand. Lucky. He hadn't even thought it might be locked. He threw himself inside as the pipe swung wildly and the cat meowed below.
Sam reached into his pocket for the flashlight and switched it on. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been up here. One Christmas he'd gone into Mack's room, climbed on the bed, and pulled down the attic door to peer up into the darkness. Mack had swung him off the bed, laughing. “How do you get yourself all over the place?”
Sam's flashlight threw shadows across the floor in front of him. He angled it up: jackets on hooks that looked like old men in a row, a jumble of boots crisscrossed over each other, but nothing that looked like a birthday present.
He tiptoed across the room; Mack was sleeping just below. Under the window was another box. Ah, maybe—
Mack's presents were the best. But the box was metal and locked, too old to be interesting. He leaned over anyway, and spotted a newspaper clipping sticking out of the edge. He tugged at it but saw that it would rip before it came loose.
He crouched down: large black letters on top, a picture of a boy underneath. The nubby sweater with the zipper down the front looked familiar.
He caught his breath. He was the boy, but so much younger.
Such a little kid in the picture, three years old maybe. Why was he in the newspaper?
He ran his fingers over the words. He couldn't read most of them. It was a pain, not being able to read. More than a pain. But actually, the top word was easy: the
stood out at the end—hadn't Mrs. Waring in the Resource Room told them a hundred times to look for groups like that? And the beginning, easy to sound: Miss—
He'd been missing?
Under the picture was his name: Sam. He realized he'd been holding his breath, and let it out in a rush. The last name was Bell. Sam Bell.
Such an easy word, an easy name, but not his. Not MacKenzie.
Suddenly he was cold, so cold up there with the open window in back of him, and the early-April wind blowing in against his shoulders.
There had to be a mistake. He'd know if he'd been missing, even as a little kid, wouldn't he? He searched around in his mind, trying to remember something, anything, and then, so clearly he could almost see it, there was a room with other children, one of them a boy, flapping his hands, wanting something that belonged to Sam. Sam had clung to the toy, holding on and holding on until—
Another memory: churning water, Night Cat on the edge of a boat, back arched, soaked, and the sound of foghorns.
Where had that come from?
Sam stood up, mouth dry, heart pounding. He heard the creak of Mack's bed underneath, and didn't move until everything was still.
He had to go back down the side of the building. He went out the attic window and grabbed the freezing pipe, sliding faster than he meant to. The pipe rattled, shook, screws popped. He went past his window, trying to stop, but couldn't, not until he reached the ground. His feet hit the dirt underneath hard enough to jar his teeth, leaving the faint taste of blood in his mouth.
Head down, shoulders hunched, he went around to the front, passing the restaurant on the end of the building, then the deli. The parking lot was empty except for Mack's pickup truck, Anima's small blue Toyota, and Onji's van with a picture of a guy taking a bite out of a hero sandwich. Night Cat was waiting at the door.
Sam fumbled in his jacket pocket for the key and went into the furniture repair shop, the cat padding silently behind him.
He walked through the workroom, threading his way around the tables. Cedar shavings crackled under his feet. Ordinarily he loved the smell of cedar, the feeling of the wood, loved the workroom, and loved Mack, who'd taught him how to cut, and join, and smooth. Mack, who'd helped
him finish the birdhouses out back with their pointy roofs, and that bench down by the water for Anima.
Maybe he'd even been kidnapped?
By Mack? And maybe Mack wasn't even his grandfather?
Ridiculous. Why would Mack want to kidnap a kid who had trouble with reading right from the start? A kid who was into everything, breaking things? “A klutzy kid,” Anima always said, smiling.
But maybe Mack hadn't realized Sam would turn out like this?
And suppose he really was missing? Suppose he didn't belong here?
Standing at the worktable Mack had set up for him years ago, he ran his hands over the scarred wood, seeing Mack's hands on his as he carved a wooden sign to hang over the table. Mack had helped him with the words,
Mack nodding, smiling, saying,
“Yes, that's the way.”
What would he do without Mack?
He didn't want to be anywhere else but this place with Mack, with Onji in the deli, and Anima with her rope of hair, her hands on his shoulders, laughing. He thought of his bedroom upstairs, the river out back, the small boat in the shed.
The article was a mistake. Or he'd misunderstood. Of course, a mistake.
He'd go right upstairs now and wake Mack, ask—
But suppose it was true, and he had to go back to wherever he came from, to some strange place ?
No, he'd just forget about the whole thing.
He hesitated. What about his picture?
That was what the newspaper clipping had said, and he had to believe it.
And what about that name? He whispered it,
, trying to make it fit, a name he'd never heard before.
It was a name he had to find out about. Somehow.
He was caught. Caught in eleven.
And someone was banging the doors.
Banging them open.
Banging them closed.
Footsteps coming after him.
Sam,” a voice shouted. “Where are you?”
Up in front of the classroom, Mrs. Stanek was writing on the board, her raised arm tight in her purple sleeve. The chalk was thick and dusty, the words a bunch of loops and whorls that seemed to jump as Sam looked at them.
Never mind, he knew what it was all about anyway: the unit on the Middle Ages they were starting.
“Pease porridge hot,”
Mrs. Stanek said over her shoulder. “Remember that old nursery rhyme?”
Some of the kids joined in.
“Pease porridge cold. Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old.”
“It's what they ate in those days,” genius Marcy Albert said. “Peas on thick bread shaped into plates.”
“You're right,” said Mrs. Stanek. “The plates were called
trenchers. After the rich ate the peas, they gave the bread away to the poor.”
Across the room, Eric caught Sam's eye. He made gagging motions with his finger to his mouth.
Sam grinned; he shaded his eyes with his hands so Mrs. Stanek wouldn't notice him glancing around. She was talking about spices now, something about people using cinnamon and cloves in the medieval days. But he was hardly thinking about mashed-up peas and bread, or spices. He had to single someone out to help him read that paper in the attic, to go through the things that might be in the box. The boys would think he was weird, so it had to be a girl.
Marcy Albert was possible. She could read, but she could talk, too. He could almost hear her.
We sneaked up to his attic, can you imagine, he's looking for something but he doesn't even know exactly what.
Besides, Marcy Albert wouldn't climb up the side of the building in a million years.
There wasn't anyone else he could think of except maybe that new girl, Caroline. She'd arrived a month or so ago, the door banging open in the middle of the morning. A Kleenex coiled out of her sleeve like a white snake; her hair was tangerine. Nice face, ski-jump nose, freckles, tinted glasses.
Since then all she'd done was read every chance she had, a dozen bracelets jangling as she turned the pages. She wasn't too friendly; he hadn't seen her smile once.
Now Mrs. Stanek marched around the room. “Ah,
Sam.” She put a picture of a castle on his desk. “Maybe you could make one for us. There's cardboard in the closet, paper, scissors, glue—”
Nice going, Mrs. Stanek, he wanted to say; she knew he wouldn't have to read a word to cut out a castle.
“We'll have a lovely feast at the end of the unit,” Mrs. Stanek said as she kept moving.
With peas on bread?
Sam looked over at Eric and slashed his throat with one finger. Eric slashed back. Mrs. Stanek raised her eyebrows, and Eric turned the throat slashing into throat scratching.