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Authors: Lisa Bullard

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BOOK: Turn Left at the Cow
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And then a while back she got together with Dale and somehow it was just the two of them, all lovey-dovey to the point that any reasonable person would seriously barf. And I was on the outside. By the time they got married this past Christmas and we moved all the way to Dale's house, I was just her annoying kid who refused to accept his new stepdad. But Dale wasn't a fair trade for giving up my friends, my school, and the place I still thought of as home.

She kept trying to pass it off as something she was doing for my sake because I had never had a dad. But I didn't want a replacement father. I wanted my real father to feel real.

So I took things into my own hands and came to see the place that my dad had thought of as home. Sure, I wasn't exactly thrilled to discover that he'd grown up in the middle of what seemed to be endless farm fields. An ocean or a mountain would have been a nice change of scenery. Still, I wasn't going to let the actual location matter, now that I was so close to getting the answers that Ma wouldn't give me.

When Gram pulled up at the bus shelter and got out of her old Ford pickup, she barely said hello. She just put her hand out for my cell phone and told me to go wait in the truck. Fifteen minutes later, she climbed into the driver's seat and handed me back my phone.

“Your mother has reluctantly agreed that you can stay for a while, as long as I punish you with daily work projects.” Gram pulled away from the curb, and I felt a huge smile spread across my face. I'd done it.

Gram tightened her lips. “I think it would be prudent, Travis, if you managed to convey the impression that you see this as a prison sentence, not a vacation.” And then, I swear, she winked at me. Or maybe it was just a twitch, because she never cracked a smile.

Which was how I ended up spending my first morning in Minnesota cleaning out the freezer chest without complaining, even though Gram's house was actually a little lake cabin set just past the edge of the fields, so I should have been stretched out on her dock working on my almost-July tan instead.

And it was also how the evil fairy had managed to catch me with my guard down; I think that freezer of death was putting off some kind of toxic fumes that didn't mix well with jet lag or something.

“Travis?” Gram's voice floated down into the cellar.

“Here,” I called, snapping alert. I hefted one of the bulging orange bags and hauled it up the steps, plunking it down at her feet. “There're still three more down there.”

Gram raised her eyebrows. “There won't be enough room in the garbage can, and trash pickup isn't until next week. The raccoons will be setting up a party if we leave them out.” She nodded toward her truck. “We better haul them away now.”

Too bad. Compared to my social life since I'd moved into the stephouse, even a raccoon party sounded good. I loaded up the truck while Gram limped inside to get her purse and keys. Then we headed off down the road away from the lake. I stared out the window, wondering how a place this empty could still qualify as a state. How would GPS even work? “Turn left at the cow”?

After a short time we came across a few buildings and then a giant statue of this way ugly fish. I was still staring at it as we turned a corner, and suddenly we were back to the vast open green that spread far and flat to a distant overlap with the sky. In my part of California, only the ocean is allowed to stretch out like that.

The truth was, Gram and I hardly knew each other. She used to come visit me once a year out in California, but after Dale entered the picture, that stopped; she didn't seem to fit into my new steplife any better than I did. But I knew this about her: she wasn't one of those grownups who always needed to be poking at you with words just to suck up all the air space. So it was quiet in the truck.

Which gave me plenty of time to try to make sense out of what the evil fairy had said.

My dad had been a bank robber?

But instead of focusing on that, for some crazy reason I started obsessing about the ex-planet Pluto.

When I was a really little kid, I lived for all that space stuff. Ma had even pasted a glow-in-the-dark universe onto the ceiling of my room, back at our old house. Back when things were just the two of us. She'd let me and my best friend, Jason Kalooky, have sleepovers all the time, and we'd lie there, looking up at the ceiling and arguing about the best planet. Kalooky always picked Jupiter because he liked that it was the biggest. I always took Pluto. I got that it was small compared to Jupiter, but as far as I was concerned, it was one tough little ice planet.

Then the science guys took a vote, and all of a sudden Pluto wasn't a planet anymore. Ma explained that we were supposed to call it a
dwarf
planet. But after that, even though I wanted to still love Pluto, I couldn't. It wasn't a real planet anymore—it was like finding out that your favorite player was juiced when he hit all those home runs. Asterisk this in the record book of life:
You may think you can count on things, but you can't. They always let you down
.

What I mean is, I already knew all about life's little disappointments. So I probably shouldn't have been feeling like Luke Skywalker when he finds out that Darth Vader is his dad and screams “Nooooooooo!” and jumps down into that void. But somehow I couldn't help it. The evil fairy's words kept spinning in my head like one of those pinwheels. And there was this void where the floorboards of the old pickup should have been that was screaming out for me to jump.

Even if the evil fairy was right, my dad had been just a bank robber, not some asthmatic guy named Darth who wanted to rule the galaxy. But the dark side is the dark side no matter what star system you come from. And bank robber—that's the dark side. Maybe on the spectrum of evil, it doesn't beat psycho killer, but it definitely outranks litterbug. And I'm guessing Luke Skywalker and I could agree: you're never really ready to discover your dad is from the dark side.

 

Normally I'm Mr. Cool, so I think it was being all worked up over Pluto that made me suddenly blurt out, “Why didn't you tell me my dad was a bank robber?”

Gram's head whipped around and the truck veered toward a ditch. And a bunch of cows—yeah, real live cows—stopped chewing grass and looked at us over their fence. Gram straightened out the truck and then stared directly ahead, all focused, watching the road like it was about to transform into the Ventura Freeway at rush hour.

“Where did you hear that?” she finally asked.

Trust a grownup to stall by answering a question with another question. “I don't know her name,” I said. “This girl. Straight dark hair. Pointy kind of face. Bad attitude. She was with a big blond kid named Kenny.”

“Isabella,” said Gram. “Kenny's cousin. Kenny lives next door. Isabella and her sister are staying there for now too.” She finally glanced back my way. “I sent them down to the cellar to introduce themselves. I never imagined they'd bring up . . .”

“The deep, dark family secret everybody's kept hidden from me for thirteen years? I mean, why should I get to know? I'm only the
son
in this story. It's a good thing the neighbor's cousin knows, but let's make sure we keep old Trav out of the loop, right?”

I guess she could tell I was a little ticked, because I saw her take a deep breath and then let it out slowly before she answered. Ma used to do that with me, too. Now Ma just goes straight to ticked.

“You're right, Travis. When you turned up here so unexpectedly, I knew I would need to talk with you about this soon. I was just hoping to find the right way to do that before someone else . . .” Gram's lips kind of pulled in and then she said, “Can we please talk about it later? Is that okay? Can we wait until we're back home?”

I shrugged and turned to look out the window. No surprise. I was used to getting the brushoff from Ma when it came to the things that mattered to me. I pulled out my music and plugged in the ear buds. The truth was, all the tunes I'd loaded had really been bugging me lately; they were all wrong somehow, like listening to the soundtrack for a chick flick when you were watching a Jackie Chan movie. But I knew Ma hated it when I shut her out that way, and I figured it might work on Gram, too. So I turned up the volume and watched for more cows.

Suddenly the scenery wasn't so much Cowpoke Sam as it was that part of LA where you double-check your car locks as you drive through. And the smell—I mean, man, this was like a cross between the time I left half a pizza under my bed for a week and the “mystery meat” in the school cafeteria. I turned off the music and looked at Gram.

“What is this place?”

“The dump,” said Gram. Huh. Apparently Minnesota did have a few hidden wonders.

We drove through a gate in a chainlink fence and pulled up to a stop sign. Somebody had put a second little sign below the regular red one that read
TAKE TURNS
. I looked around. Other than the cows, I wasn't sure who we were supposed to take turns with.

Gram moved forward up a ramp and then jerked to another stop. She got out of the truck and walked over to talk to this guy who had come out of a trailer. They started chatting and pointing, yakking about whatever it is you yak about with the dump guy.

Meanwhile, I checked out the rest of WALL-E World from the safety of the truck: door-less refrigerators and heaps of garbage mounded high. Gulls were dive-bombing into the piles, screaming like extras in a Hitchcock movie. There was a bulldozer sitting quiet and lonely, way over on the other side of the enclosure, but I didn't see the point—you would have to bulldoze 24/7 just to keep up.

The dump guy pointed one final time and Gram climbed back into the truck, bumping along in the direction he had sent us. We curved around a bathtub and stopped right past a mannequin standing up in a rusting-out freezer chest not so different than the one I'd done a header into earlier that morning. Gram motioned me out of the truck and began climbing out herself. A shadow caught my eye and I tipped my head back; low overhead, three big black birds with small red heads circled, their spread wings fanning across the blue sky.

Gram tipped her head back too. “Buzzards. Turkey vultures. They're drawn in by the smell of decay.”

Excellent. Maybe tomorrow we could take a field trip to the funeral home.

Gram told me to jump up into the truck bed and throw down the trash bags. I was tossing the last one onto a heap when this guy rose up out of the garbage, really mad, yelling and swinging something around his head, like some kind of maniac karate master. I swear, he was about to storm the back of the truck; I scrambled backwards, tripped, and sat down hard in the truck bed. Then I heard Gram's voice.

“Carl! Carl, it's okay—this is my grandson, Travis.”

The guy pretty much froze midair and then wilted down into himself. He looked like a bag of bones held together by a nasty pair of coveralls. He muttered something, giving me the evil eye from underneath matted hair that hung down into his face. Gram walked over and touched his arm, murmuring something to him. She reached into her purse and took out what looked like cash and handed it over. He gave me one last dirty look, then loped off.

“What's with him?” I stood and brushed off the back of my shorts, watching as the guy scrabbled up a pile of garbage bags and slid down the other side, out of sight.

“I'm sorry, Travis—he's a very ill old man.” Gram sighed and turned back to the truck. “Let's go home.”

Then, despite saying earlier that she wanted to wait to talk, as soon as we were moving again she started in, spacing out her words all careful and slow, like she was reading off a phone number and wanted to make sure I got it down right.

“I know I should have talked to you about all this before, but your mother didn't want me to, and I was too—” She stopped and cleared her throat. Gram was probably telling the truth about that; I was sure Ma had told her the “don't ask, don't tell” policy that applied to my old man.

Gram didn't look at me, didn't reach out to me—she just kept talking. “But there's no excuse for me letting you down. So . . . things weren't good for your father after he came home from the army. I spent months hoping he'd find his way to the next right thing, but it never seemed to happen. Sometimes he'd be better for a while, like when he met your mother. He was happy then. But things would get worse again.”

She stopped and took a breath. I was sure I looked like one of those big clown-head garbage cans, my mouth hanging wide open and my eyes bugging out at this sudden release of information after all the years of silence.

“Overall his life was going downhill. He couldn't hold on to a job, and your mother eventually left for California without him, a few months before you were born. Then one morning, the old deputy knocked on my door and asked if he could come in. He said, ‘Mrs. Stoiska, I've got some difficult news, ma'am.'” Gram finally looked over at me. “It had been a stormy night; your father's boat had been found washed up onshore over on the other side of the lake, and there was no sign of him.

“I called your mother. She hadn't heard from him. I didn't hear from him either. A few weeks later, men in dark jackets turned up. The FBI. They said that someone had stolen a lot of money from a bank in this small town up north, just before your father vanished. For some reason they were convinced your father had something to do with it. They searched his house. But they never found the money. And they never found him. I never saw him again.”

Gram stared out the bug-guts-plastered windshield. She was gripping the steering wheel so hard that her knuckles stuck up like white bones, even though we had been parked in her driveway for the past five minutes.

Suddenly somebody knocked on the passenger-side window. I jumped and turned my head away from Gram to look. It was Kenny—and Isabella. “Hey, Butter Head,” he said, smiling real big. “Me and Iz are going out fishing in my boat—wanna come?”

BOOK: Turn Left at the Cow
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