Authors: Lisa Bullard
I stood there, holding a clean T-shirt, seriously thinking about going AWOL out my bedroom window. The invitation to the fishing trip had hardly been out of Kenny's mouth before Gram was gushing away, saying “doesn't that sound like fun” and all but carrying me down to the boat herself. She made it pretty clear I was heading out to catch me a big one, like it or not. My guess was she needed some alone time and couldn't figure out how else to get rid of me.
And grownupsâthey always assume that just because you're the same age as somebody, you'll be best buds in minutes. But it wasn't hard to tell that one wrong move on my part, and IsabellaâIz?âmight sprinkle me with evil fairy dust.
The problem was, a whole long list of possible wrong moves on my part seemed inevitable, since my hands-on experience with fish began when they were already in the fish sticks stage. Ma wasn't exactly the bait-your-hook type. And since my father had disappeared sometime after his close encounter of the biological kind with her, but before I squirted into the world, I never had that Family Channel moment where my daddy taught me how to fish. Looking stupid on a fishing trip with the kids next door just wasn't at the top of my wish list.
Besides, the last thing I really wanted to see right now was a fish. After less than a day in Minnesota, I felt like I was drowning in some pretty deep stuff. And the truth was, it was a fish that had given me the dumb idea to run away from home in the first place.
See, there is this certain kind of catfish that can actually wiggle out of its pond and walk around on land until it finds a better place to rest its little fishy head. It lives in Asia, I think, or maybe it's Florida. But the point is, it's a real fish, and it really walks. I swearâyou can catch it on Animal Planet if you don't believe me. Anyway, one night when the rest of California was nestled all snug in their beds, I saw it on cable and decided this fish was onto something.
Because if its pond dries up, or if it gets tired of it, then this catfish just up and boogies on to the next pond over. So I started thinking about my own pond and how much it didn't feel like home, and next thing I knew, I was making plans to get out of thereâto shimmy my way cross-country to a different pond.
A pond where I could maybe figure out who my real dad had been instead of dealing with this step-father Ma was so eager to have me adopt. After all, there was a whole other half to my gene pool that I'd never been given the chance to swim in.
Except somehow I'd thought this would turn out to be some Disney movie, and now it was looking more like something rated R, like I was in over my head.
But no matter how I felt about fish, right then I just couldn't deal with sitting at home, trying to figure out what I was supposed to say to Gram. Putting myself into a situation where I was bound to look like a total dork seemed like the better option.
Kenny and Iz were waiting in this little red old-fashioned fishing boat by the dock next door to Gram's. Iz pointed me to the bench seat between where she was sitting up front and where Kenny was sitting in back running the motor. We bounced across the waves for a while without saying anything. Kenny steered us close to this island that was a ways offshore, then cut back on the power. The motor started hacking like some three-packs-a-day geezer.
“We brought food if you're hungry.” Iz waved toward some white paper bags sitting on the seat next to me. My insides were squeezing together, reminding me that I hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast. I grabbed the nearest bag; inside was a small Styrofoam container. I pried open the lid. It held a mysterious substance that Minnesotans apparently considered food, but this looked even stranger than the “Tater Tot hotdish” Gram had served at dinner the night before. Actually, it looked like something you'd find Orange County housewives nibbling on: some kind of rain forest granola made of grass shavings andâwhat were those white ballsâmaybe some kind of spiral pasta?
Suddenly one of the spirals moved. It uncurled and stretched itself toward the sun. I shrieked and threw the container up into the air. Small white balls began unwinding all across the bottom of the boat. One tickled my left foot. A seagull wheeled low overhead and screamed like a two-year-old. I was pretty sure that was exactly how I had sounded a few seconds before.
“Dude?” Kenny grinned. He had gotten the motor under control. “Hey, when you're done with your snack, hand me that other bag, the one with the cookies, okay?”
“Coordinated much?” Iz smirked as she pulled one of the spirals out of her hair. But then she hunkered down and started picking up the grubs or whatever they were off the bottom of the boat, tossing them back into the Styrofoam container. “They'll dry out if we don't get them back under cover pretty quick,” she said as I joined her. “And then you two won't have any bait.”
“You're not fishing?” I asked, relieved that the conversation had moved so quickly to any topic other than my clearly unbalanced mental state.
She gave me a sideways look. “I'm fishing for something .Â .Â . else.” She dropped the carton onto the bench next to me and returned to her seat.
Kenny handed me a fishing pole. I let him have first go at the container of bait while I pretended to make a show of examining the pole. Really I was watching to see exactly how he got the squirmy little bugger onto the hook.
After only a couple of grub-gut squirts onto my shorts, I got my hook baited and my line into the water. Kenny kept the boat crawling along, running parallel to the curve of the island. Iz had taken out some kind of electronic device and was peering into a screen.
“Wii Fisherperson?” I said. “GPS, in case we lose track of shore?” That was a laugh. There was no place you could go on this lake where you could lose track of shore; it was a kiddie pool compared to the big bad Pacific I was used to.
Iz jerked her shoulders without looking up.
“We borrowed Uncle Butch's underwater camera,” Kenny said. “He uses it as a fish finder. But Iz is looking for”âhe paused and reeled his line in a bitâ“not fish,” he finally said.
I had always been good at fill-in-the-blank tests, and I was starting to get a strange idea about what we might be fishing for. I turned to Iz. “You're using the underwater camera to look for .Â .Â .Â ?”
She finally lifted her big storm-cloud eyes and stared at me. “Some people think maybe your fatherâand the stolen money, tooâended up on the bottom of the lake. I'm sorry if you don't want to think about it. But I have to find that money. And we invited you along because after this morning, Kenny convinced me we need your help.”
I stared out over the side of the boat. Even as close as we were to the island, you couldn't see the bottom of the lake; the low-running waves kept washing away the lake's secrets. Sunbeams ricocheted off the water in all directions like bullets of light. The gulls had settled back onto the waves and were bouncing up and down, looking just like bobble heads.
Iz thought that the lake might hold part of the answers I needed.
Finally I looked back at her. “Gram confirmed that there's a Wanted poster out there with my dad's picture on it. But I'm guessing there's a whole lot more to the story than she's already told me. So maybe you better go ahead and catch me up on everything you know.”
Kenny just kept tossing his line into the water. Iz was the chatty one. “Here's the way everybody figures it: Your father robbed that bank up north. Then he came back to town to hide the money. Then he drowned. So the money has to still be around here somewhere, right? I mean, the cops never found any of it.”
I thought her theory had more holes than my old gym socks, but before I could ask any questions, Kenny suddenly clapped a hand to his forehead. “What time is it? I promised Mom we'd be home by two fifteen to babysit the brats.”
Iz looked at her watch. “So sad. Yet again you've messed up. It's two thirty.”
“I wouldn't celebrate so fast. You're supposed to have been there too, Miss Perfect. This is why I need a cell phone.” Kenny was reeling in his line double time.
Iz snorted. “Well, if you hadn't put your first one through the wash and dropped the second one in the lakeÂ .Â .Â .”
“You can borrow mine.” I pulled it out of my pocket and handed it over.
“Whoa, is this sweet or what?” Kenny turned my phone over in his hands. “My friend Cody has one just like it. He says you can practically program it to launch a nuclear missile attack in between texts.”
I have to admit, I was pretty proud that I had technology to rival Bill Gates, but Iz rolled her eyes and sighed bigtime while I showed Kenny some of the phone's best features.
“Uhâtwo thirty-four?” she said, tapping her watch.
Kenny hurriedly dialed and had one of those conversations where the other personâhis mom, I guessedâdoesn't let you finish a sentence. All he could squeeze in was “But we” and “But I” and a sad little “All right” before he hung up.
“Hang on.” He looked at us, then revved up the motor and bounced us back over the waves with enough speed that at one point I thought I was going to involuntarily donate a kidney to one of the gulls flying overhead.
Gram managed to avoid me as much as possible for the rest of the day. I guess she'd used up her quota of words and wasn't ready to do any more gut spilling. So it was a relief when Kenny called later that night to say the baby-sitting gig had wrapped and I should come by for an after-dark swim.
Five minutes later I was standing on his dock in my swim shorts, watching the moon rise up yellow and lopsided over the dark lake.
“I tested the water this afternoon, man, and it was pretty cold,” I said.
“Don't be such a baby.” Iz tossed her head. “The ice has been out for two months now.” She lowered her voice. “The little kids will come pester us if we sit on the dock. Nobody will bother us if we're out on the raft.”
I could see Kenny's grin in the dark. “But to get there, you've got to risk freezing, California.”
“At least here you don't have to worry about sharks,” I muttered.
Kenny snickered. “Oh, we got Jaws here too, man. Only this is a snapping turtle. Weighs in at about forty pounds. Just one snap and he can take off a guy'sâ”
“Kenny!” said Iz.
,” finished Kenny.
This “why not go to Minnesota” idea of mine just kept getting better and better. I stood there for a minute, looking down at the cold, black water and thinking a little bit about Jaws and a little bit about my father and a little bit about the fact that Iz was wearing a swimsuit and standing right next to me in the dark.
Then something slammed into me and I went flipping through the air.
I hit the water with a smack and sank under. The cold sucked all the bones out of my body. Somehow I got my head up above the surface and spit out a lungful of lake. I could see Kenny's white smile again, floating next to me, and a sleek form sliding like a seal under the water past him. Iz.
“Only way to do it,” said Kenny. “If you think too hard, you'll never go in.” I had kind of gotten the impression that thinking too hard was never Kenny's problem, but it seemed the boy knew how to get things done when necessary. Something to remember.
We struck out for the raft and hoisted ourselves up the side. We all lay back and looked up at the night. I was starting to understand why UFOs usually land in cow pastures; apparently you're a whole lot closer to the stars when you're out in the boonies.
“Where was I, in the story about your dad?” asked Iz. Her voice floated up next to me, really close in the dark. Goose bumps rose along my skin.
“You had just told me that the cops never found any of the money,” I said.
“Right,” she said. “But the guy who found your father's boat adrift remembered later on that there were big smears of clay all over the inside of it. The kind of clay that's under the topsoil around here.”
“And that meansÂ .Â .Â .Â ?” I asked.
“Maybe your father had been digging somewhere. And the night your dad drowned, there was this really big storm. So people started asking, what would be important enough to make your father go out on the water in such bad weather? And all the old guys our fathers' age, they used to camp out on the island all the time when they were kids, so it was a place your dad knew really well. Everybody started thinking maybe your father decided to bury the money on the island.”
“Okay, but this bank robberyâthis all happened, like, before we were even born, right? How do you even know all this?”
“People talk about the robbery all the time. We've been listening to these stories our whole lives,” said Kenny. “The big thing to do on a Sunday afternoon is to boat over and have a picnic with tuna sandwiches and watermelon and dig for the money. Whole island's probably been dug up about ten times over by now.”
Yeah, forget what I said about the raccoon parties being a hot time here. Not when you've got tuna sandwiches and an island to dig up.
“And then some people figure your father could have gone overboard before he ever reached the island. So maybe the money went with him into the lake. Since nobody's ever found it,” added Iz.
“When you say âgone overboard,' you mean .Â .Â .” I wasn't sure how to finish.
I could hear Iz take a deep breath. “Well, maybe he fell overboard by accident in the storm. But my uncle says your father was a good swimmer. And the body never floated up or anything. Some people, they think he might have started to feel bad about what he'd done, so he went overboard more .Â .Â . on purpose. Like with an anchor tied around his foot.”
I decided I wasn't really ready to think too much about the townsfolk's version of my father's plan B, so I steered the conversation back toward the money angle. “And you think you're somehow going to find the money even though the whole town's come up with nothing all these years. And then once you find it, the bank's going to let you keep it?” I could feel my voice rising up against the night.