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Authors: Jon Berkeley

The Hidden Boy

BOOK: The Hidden Boy
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The Hidden Boy
Jon Berkeley

Here's to Ray,
Who left unexpectedly
Having exceeded his brief as a human being
by a substantial margin.

W
hen Bea Flint opened the front door, just a few days before her little brother imploded, she found a stocky man in a sea captain's uniform waiting on the doormat. His cheeks were flamingo pink, and a gray beard fringed his chin. He stuck out his hand abruptly and smiled.

“Captain Bontoc,” he said. He looked as if he had just stepped off a packet of frozen cod.

“Oh,” said Bea. She could not remember hearing the doorbell ring, but she supposed it must have. She kept her hands by her sides. “Are you looking for someone?” she said.

“Aye,” said Captain Bontoc. “I'm looking for a Mrs. Flint. Or possibly a Mr. Flint.”

“We have one of each,” said Bea. “Which would you prefer?”

The captain looked slightly sheepish. “Not absolutely sure, missy. Somebody named Flint bought a raffle ticket in aid of the Salty Dogs Retirement Fund, but the ticket got a bit wet, so it's hard to read. I'm here to deliver the prize.”

“What did we win?” asked Ma from over Bea's shoulder.

“You'll be Mrs. Flint,” said Captain Bontoc, removing his cap. He held out the ticket stub. “The name's a bit blurred, but you can still make out the address. Somebody here is the lucky winner of a Blue Moon Once-in-a-Lifetime Adventure Holiday.”

Ma turned the ticket over in her tattooed hands. “I don't remember buying this,” she said.

“Maybe Pa bought it,” said Bea.

“Never mind who bought it,” said Granny Delphine from the narrow hallway. There were six people living in the Flints' cramped apartment, and a crowd could develop quickly. Granny Delphine had round glasses that gave her the look of an owl in search of its supper. “Let's have the details, if you please, young man,” she said.

“Right away,” said the captain hastily, and he produced a small brochure from an inside pocket. “You'll find it all in here,” he said. “The tour leaves from the
Blue Moon office on Wednesday at eleven
P.M.
sharp. Groups of seven only. No pets, nontransferable, no cash prizes.”

“How long is the holiday?” asked Ma, taking the brochure from the captain.

“All the details are in the brochure,” said Captain Bontoc. “It'll be the trip of a lifetime!” He replaced his hat and backed toward the stairs. “I must be off, if you'll excuse me. Got some caulking to do.”

 

In the days that followed Captain Bontoc's unexpected visit, the brochure he had left seemed to travel around the apartment of its own accord. One day it would be wedged between the damp-wrinkled magazines in the bathroom, the next day perched on the edge of the kitchen table waiting to be swept off as someone squeezed past. Everyone in the Flint family read it at least twice, except Theo. He just looked at the pictures.

The brochure came to rest beside Granny Delphine as she dozed in her armchair on the evening of their departure. Bea was searching for her binoculars when she spotted it, and for what must have been the tenth time she picked it up and looked closely at the picture on the cover. The words
BLUE MOON ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME ADVENTURE HOLIDAYS
curled across
the sky in large yellow letters, and the closer you looked at it the more adventure you could see. In the foreground was a tree with many trunks and broad branches radiating outward like spokes.
A banyan tree
, said Bea to herself. She was more often to be found reading encyclopedias than anything else, and she knew about such things.

There was a platform built in the tree, and a tent pitched on the platform, and a large family who appeared to be having the best time you could possibly have in a tree, or anywhere else for that matter. They were swinging from ropes, they were picking enormous fruit, they were sliding down the sloping roots and calling to one another with their hands cupped around their mouths, the way people do only in pictures. A woman in a safari suit busied herself at a cooking fire, smiling like a dentist's assistant. A saucer-eyed monkey peeped from between the banyan leaves, and a striped snout could just be seen in the shadows among the roots. Tall mountains stood like crooked pegs in the distance.

Bea's eyes returned to the base of the tree. There was not much she didn't know about animals, yet the creature snuffling among the tree roots was strangely unfamiliar. It looked like a miniature pig with zebra
stripes, except that zebra stripes were seldom bright green, as these were. The details were frustratingly small. Bea glanced at her sleeping grandmother, then at the old lady's round spectacles, resting next to her knotted hand on the arm of the chair. Bea hesitated for a moment, then picked them up and placed them quickly on her nose.

The springy wire arms of the glasses curled around her ears like live things, and she sat back on her heels, startled. The picture on the brochure seemed to leap toward her. She could see now that it was swarming with life. There was an animal behind almost every leaf on the tree, and the air hummed with fat honeybees. The smoke from the campfire billowed into the sky, and in the far distance great birds hovered over the mountains.

Something was missing from the picture too, but it took her a moment to realize what it was. The small boy who had been swinging from the branches when she first examined it was nowhere to be seen. Bea turned the brochure over, thinking that she must have seen him on the back cover, but he was not there, either.

A muffled snort made her look up quickly at her grandmother. Granny Delphine herself appeared different through the glasses. Her expression was sharper,
and her nose curved like a beak. A network of wrinkles traced the contours of her face like a minutely detailed map. Bea was overtaken by a panicky feeling that she was seeing more than she was meant to. She tried to unhook the glasses from her ears, but their curling arms had tangled themselves in her hair. Granny Delphine was rubbing her eyes with her fingertips. Bea managed to free the spectacles just in time, replacing them on the arm of the chair as the old lady opened her eyes.

“I was…just looking at the brochure,” said Bea quickly.

“I didn't ask what you were doing, child,” said Granny Delphine. She gave Bea a suspicious look. “Why don't you go and help your mother?”

Bea got up and hurried into the kitchen, where her mother was rummaging through the drawers, looking for plastic cutlery.

Ma glanced at the brochure that Bea still clutched in her hand. “I still think there could be more information,” she said with a frown.

“There's enough,” said Bea, a little too quickly. “It wouldn't be an adventure if we knew what to expect, would it?”

Ma took the brochure. “‘Strictly groups of seven.
No pets,'” she read again. “Why seven?”

“I'm bringing Nails,” said Theo from the corner.

“You can't bring Nails,” said Ma. “It says
no pets
.”

“We need seven people,” said Theo, “and we only have six.” His voice whistled through the gap where his two front teeth had been.

“Nails is a meerkat,” said Ma. “Meerkats aren't people.”

“Mine is,” said Theo. A stubborn look came over his face, and he disappeared into his bedroom.

Granny Delphine appeared at the door of the kitchen. “What's the holdup?” she said, and everyone jumped slightly and tried to look busy. “It's quarter to ten,” said Granny Delphine, who never wore a watch but always knew the time. Her glasses had returned to their familiar perch on her nose, and her magnified eyes swept the room like spotlights. “The tour leaves at eleven, and if the brochure says we need seven people then we need seven people.”

“I'm sure they'll take six of us,” said Ma.

“I'm sure they won't,” said Granny Delphine.

“Anyway, we
are
seven,” said Bea, “if you count Phoebe.”

“So we are,” said Granny Delphine. “Run next door
and get her; there's a good girl. Tell her we're leaving in ten minutes.”

“We can't bring the neighbors' daughter just to make up the
numbers
,” said Ma, as the door slammed after Bea.

Granny Delphine fixed Ma with a hard stare. “That child's parents have been playing poker for eleven straight days,” she said. “They've lost their car, their couch and their cat. What do you think they'll bet next?”

Ma looked at Granny Delphine with a shocked expression. “They wouldn't!” she said.

“They can't if she comes with us,” said Granny Delphine. She folded her arms crisply to close the subject. “Is the van packed?” she said.

The van was not packed, but once Granny Delphine had asked the question it almost packed itself. Pa thundered down the wooden stairs two at a time, a suitcase over each shoulder. Bea, who always packed days in advance, disappeared into Theo's room to make sure he had everything he needed in his backpack. Gabby ticktocked into the kitchen and began making a skyscraper of sandwiches from everything that remained in the fridge, including the frost.

Gabby was thin and unsmiling, with short red hair
that never seemed to grow. She had been in the apartment when they moved in, and since she had nowhere else to go she had never left. She moved like a clockwork toy, and she never uttered a word. Between her shoulder blades she had an imaginary key, which needed winding twice a day or she would come to a complete standstill.

Before ten minutes had passed, Granny Delphine was trotting down the stairs like a silver-haired sheepdog, driving the stragglers before her. She carried a small crocodile-skin case inscribed with her name in silver letters:
MRS. D. WALKER
. The family Flint emerged onto the pavement under a darkening sky and began to jigsaw themselves into the van wherever they could find space among the cases and bags.

Picture for a moment the passenger list of that rust-spotted vehicle. There was Pa, also known as Bald Mountain, wedged into the driver's seat and drumming his fingers on the wheel. Beside him sat Theo, as small as Pa was big, holding on his knee an army camouflage backpack that twitched suspiciously. Next to him was Ma, who was trying to remember what she had forgotten to pack. In the middle row Granny Delphine sat like an alert owl, and Gabby wrote in a small green
notebook with a silver pen, her elbow resting on a pile of sandwiches. In the back of the van Bea settled herself among the sleeping bags while they waited for Phoebe to appear. She wondered what the wilderness would be like. She pictured herself surrounded by teeming wildlife with no fear of mankind, like the picture on the brochure.

“Did you bring the map?” asked Ma.

“No need,” said Bald Mountain. “The bus leaves from the Blue Moon office on the canal docks. I know those docks like the back of my hand.”

Theo looked at the back of Pa's hand and wondered what he meant. It was decorated with a tattoo that Ma had put there before even Bea was born, when Pa still rode with the Flying Rascals Motorcycle Club and Ma was the busiest tattoo artist in town. The tattoo showed a burning bridge with curling tongues of flame that licked around Pa's wrist. It did not look like a map of any kind to Theo.

In the back of the van Bea was also thinking of that tattoo. The thought of the burning bridge gave her a sudden queasy feeling as she squirmed among the sleeping bags. She remembered how strange the picture on the brochure had looked through Granny Delphine's
spectacles, and pushed down a guilty feeling that was rising in her chest.

And Phoebe Lu, the neighbors' daughter? She took the last six stairs at a flying leap, touching down briefly on the doorstep before launching herself out of the door like a kangaroo. She had short black hair, and one brown arm and one white one, having just had her plaster cast removed. She was fearless and thin, and she would have been even thinner if she had not eaten dinner with the Flint family every day, as her parents were far too caught up in the flip of a card or the tumble of dice to worry about feeding their daughter.

“In the back, Phoebe, quickly,” called Granny Delphine, “and pull the door after you. There's no time to lose.” The clouds broke as the van pulled away from the curb, and a warm rain began to fall. Granny Delphine stared straight ahead, not wanting to take a last look at the apartment. She knew she would probably never see it again, and she was afraid someone would spot the tears in her eyes.

BOOK: The Hidden Boy
11.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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