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Authors: Lisa Bullard

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BOOK: Turn Left at the Cow
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Iz shifted and sat up next to me, and Kenny jumped into the conversation really fast. “It was in all the papers: after the robbery, the bank announced this big reward.”

I had a lot of what seemed like really obvious questions. I wanted to ask Iz why she wanted the money so badly; I mean, it seemed as if this had to be about more than just a trip to the megamall. I wanted to ask them what if everybody was wrong, and my father never had anything to do with the bank robbery? I wanted to ask why nobody had ever considered that maybe my old man had just let the boat drift as a decoy and run off with all that cold hard “who wants to be a millionaire” cash in a suitcase. I mean, who was to say he wasn't actually still alive today and sitting on some tropical island somewhere, drinking out of one of those little glasses with an umbrella?

And I wanted to ask,
What happens if we do stumble across a bunch of bones that used to be Gram's only kid?

But something told me to save those questions for another time.

“Okay, then,” I said. “I get that you want to find the money. But what I don't get is why you think I can help you. Today is the first I'm hearing about any of this.”

Iz leaned back onto her elbows. Kenny let out a breath.

“There was a whole day between when the bank was robbed and when they found the boat adrift and discovered your father was missing,” Iz said. “Everybody remembers him hanging around town like usual that day in between. I got to thinking that maybe your father wrote a note. Or made a treasure map. He had plenty of time for it. When he didn't turn up later, your grandma cleaned out his house. Carried all his things home with her.”

“The cops never found anything in his stuff. But maybe they didn't know what they were looking for. If your dad did make a map, maybe your grandma's got it now,” said Kenny. “All we have to do is find it. And you're on the inside, man. We need your help.”

The raft was shifting back and forth, back and forth, like a rocking chair under my back. I felt this big sigh heaving itself out of my body; my chest had gotten too tight, and the air needed to escape.

Iz said, “You'll help us, won't you?”

I watched one lone star hurtle across the sky and die over the edge of the horizon. Then I said the first thing that popped into my head. “I was thinking this morning about how they sent Pluto down to the minors so it didn't get to be a real planet anymore. Do you remember that? When we were just little kids? I took it kind of hard for some reason.”

There was dead silence for a minute except for the sound of little waves licking at the raft's sides, and then Kenny said, “Yeah, I kinda remember that. I don't remember it being such a big deal, though.”

“It's stupid, I guess, but I really loved Pluto. For a long time I kept hoping and hoping they'd put it back in the lineup, and then I finally gave up on it.”

We all stared up at those huge honking stars for a while, and then Iz said, real quiet, “Because you figured out life just doesn't work that way. I get that.” I turned my head to look at her and she looked over at me, and just for a second, it seemed as if her eyes had trapped some of those too-big stars. Then she shifted and the light flew back up into the night.

I wanted to believe in Pluto again, but Iz was right: life just doesn't work that way.

“Okay,” I said, “I'm in. We're looking for a treasure map. And my father's bones. Where do we start?”

CHAPTER 6

When I was a really little kid, Ma was always spelling things over my head. I learned pretty fast that as soon as she started rattling off random ABCs, something big was going down. But I couldn't crack the alphabet code. So first there'd be the jumble of letters, and then I'd find myself being held down while the nice doctor gave me a shot.

Once I was halfway through first grade, she couldn't get away with spelling stuff, but she still worked really hard to keep me out of certain conversations. And back then I actually had a lot to say to her, so it really bugged me when she gave me the brushoff.

Which made it pretty funny that things turned around the way they did. Suddenly one day I wasn't so interested in talking to Ma. It was as if all those times I'd been shooed away had cured me of it. And as soon as that happened, Ma was wild to talk to me. All the time. She hammered at me about every last detail, asking about my new school and any new friends. Me, I just learned this look: I'd let my mouth hang open and my eyes glaze over, and I wouldn't answer anything until she said, “PAY ATTENTION to me when I'm talking to you,” and I'd say, “Huh?” all innocent-like, and it would send her into a frenzy. Maybe she should have looked ahead and seen this coming when she was doing all that spelling.

The problem was, Gram wasn't anything like Ma. She was the queen of keeping things to herself; she hardly talked at all. Maybe it was from living alone for so long. But whatever the reason—I really needed her to start in with the gabbing a little more. Partly so somebody else's voice would interrupt all the spinning around my own thoughts were doing. Partly because I still had a lot of questions about dear Daddy-O and I needed them answered.

But now, on top of all that, I'd been given this secret mission. The America's Most Wanted neighborhood tag team wanted me to figure out if Gram held any clues to the missing money. Not exactly the easiest assignment in the world.

At breakfast the next morning, I studied Gram out of the corner of my eye. But with this invisible wall of silence between us, I had no idea how to get a conversation going that went further than “please pass the syrup.” And it was a big leap from Aunt Jemima to “did you happen to find a treasure map with a big red
X
when you were cleaning out Dad's house after he disappeared?” So I just ate my pancakes and acted as if nothing else was going on, hoping to get my superhero invisible-wall-of-silence penetrating powers back online soon.

The pancakes were really good, though. I could have eaten, like, fifty of them.

Finally Gram spoke up. “I'd like you to come down to the church with me after breakfast. We're having a big fundraiser tomorrow night, and we could use your help setting some things up this morning. And Travis, you're dripping syrup on your shirt.”

I had been so busy thinking about how to get Gram talking that when she actually started in, I stopped dead with this big bite halfway to my mouth and just held it there like a dork.

“Uh—okay.” I made a bigger mess of the syrup on my shirt by scrubbing at it with my napkin. “But afterward, do you think I could hang out with Kenny and Iz? They wanted to take me out to the island this afternoon.”

Gram took a long drink of coffee and set down her mug. “I imagine you'll have earned the right to some fun at that point. But I don't know exactly when I'll be able to leave the church to bring you home. Maybe . . .” She nodded over toward the back door, where a really strange-looking wooden cutout of a fish was hanging on the wall. A bunch of different-size keys hung off fishing hooks that were stuck to it.

“See that little gold key on the blue key chain? That's for the garden shed out in the yard. Somewhere buried in the back of it you should be able to find your father's old bike. He left it there when he moved out.”

I jumped up and hurried over to the key rack. You'd never find anything like it on the wall in my stepfather's house. I mean, this fish just didn't look right, man; it was kind of lopsided and deformed and you could tell it wasn't that way on purpose, like when something's supposed to be Art. I hoped it wasn't based on some real fish; if there was a fish out there that looked like that, then the global warming dudes were right—the toxins were taking over and we all just better get in line behind the dodos and the polar bears.

Gram came up behind me. “Your father made that in junior-high shop class. Right when he was about your age. He was so proud that Christmas—he could hardly wait for me to open it.”

She reached out with her bent-up old-lady finger and softly ran it across one edge, where the wooden fish had a big ragged lump sticking out. “He was upset when the shop teacher marked down his grade for not finishing this off. But John was always in a hurry to move on to the next thing life had to offer. What's one little rough spot when all the wide world is just waiting for you to jump in?”

She gave me a smile that somehow managed to be as sad as if she were bawling. “Of course, I told him the lump was my favorite part; I said it gave the whole piece character.”

She plucked the gold key off the hook and handed it to me. “As he got older, his rough spots kept getting rougher. I'm so sorry that his last jump landed him in a place where he never got to meet you, Travis. It's not what I would have wanted for either one of you.”

I clutched the key in my fist. “I'll look for that bike,” I muttered, and pretty much ran out the door. I guess that's what happens when grownups finally decide to start talking to you. They tell you stuff that just makes you feel worse about the rough spots in your own life.

 

Of course the bike wasn't there. So next thing I knew, we were back in the truck, heading to town to buy me a new bike, while I wondered how the morning had turned into one of those sitcoms from the olden days where the biggest problem in some kid's life is new braces or a bad math grade—or no bike.

Gram pulled over and parked on the side of the road. “Here we are. Come along, Travis.”

I peered around while Gram climbed out of the truck. She had said we were going to town, so I had been watching for, well, a town.

This was, like, a block. I mean, there were those few buildings we'd passed going to the dump the day before. And one stop sign. And that giant fish statue. But I was still looking around, trying to figure it out, when I suddenly got it. This was it. All of it.

Gram went marching (as much as somebody with a limp can march) into a building that had—wait for it—a sign over the door saying
THE
BIG STORE
. I guess when you could fit the whole town onto one block, then you could fit everything you needed into one store. We paused in front of some cow-size plastic animals that had trees or something growing out of their heads and looked around. Then Gram spotted bikes back behind a big display of pooper-scoopers.

“What do you think?” she asked, pointing to a black bike.

She had this excited “it's your birthday” look on her face. It told me that the Big Store was selling Trav a bike today even if there was an earthquake in the next five seconds. But I was pretty sure Gram wasn't exactly rolling in the dough. She drove an old beater and her furniture was all faded and I think maybe there were still dinosaurs around when she bought her TV. So I kind of pretended to be all interested in the pooper-scoopers while really I was trying to get a look at the price tag without Gram's noticing.

“Um—you know, Gram, you don't have to buy it for me. I mean, it's a great bike, but I can buy my own bike. I mean, I can pay you back later. I have a bunch of money in my room.” And I did too. Not that I'm saying that made me special or anything, but it was true. My stepfather seemed to think he could buy my acceptance if he just threw enough cash my way.

Gram gave me a funny look. “That's very . . . manly of you, Travis, to want to pay for it yourself. I guess you really are growing up. But I won't be denied the pleasure of buying my grandson a bike. Try it out.”

A guy in a green vest popped up while I was giving the bike the once-over. I noticed that his vest had
THE BIG STORE “KING”
stitched across the front. I wasn't sure why His Majesty had it in for me, but he was giving me the kind of look the substitute teacher gives the class when she's had her back turned and somebody rips a big one. It was starting to seem as if most of the people I met around here were ready to hate me on sight.

Gram turned to him. “Milo, you've never met my grandson, have you? Travis, this is Mr. Svengrud. He used to be on the football team with your father.”

It was clear the King wanted to drop-kick me right on out of there, but I guess he figured he couldn't actually injure a customer without a fat lawsuit on his hands.

Gram asked a bunch of questions about the bike, and the King was stuck having to answer them even though he still had that “who farted?” look on his face. At least it wasn't some dork-mobile ride or anything, which certainly wasn't a given in this town, considering that just across from the bikes was a rack of T-shirts that said “Minnesota: Home of the Loon-atics.”

Gram finally said, “We'll take it.” There was a moment when I thought the King was going to grab it away instead of letting us leave with it, but then he shoved it at me and stomped off. Gram watched him go, shaking her head with her eyebrows raised high, as if they were going to fly right off her forehead.

She turned and slipped me a big wad of cash from her purse. She lowered her voice. “You go ahead and pay for the bike yourself like you wanted to—nobody else has to know I gave you the money. I'm going to go pick up some charcoal.” She limped away, all happy and pleased with herself, leaving me with nothing to do but roll the thing up to the front of the store and get in line to buy it.

But then I saw—or smelled, really—who was ahead of me. It was that crazy old guy who'd tried to take me down the day before at the dump. I started to pull back, but he jerked his head up all of a sudden and saw me.

He looked me over for a minute, and then his eyes got narrow and he moved in really close. “You're one of them aliens, ain't you?” he said, breathing on me with his dead-fish breath. “I've seen your kind falling from your spaceships into the lake at night.” His claw-hand came up and gripped my arm, hard. “I'm on to you, space man.”

“Carl!” Gram's voice spoke up behind me and he backed away fast, turning to throw a bunch of money onto the counter and grabbing up a couple of big bags. Then he gave me one last dirty look and took off out the door.

BOOK: Turn Left at the Cow
3.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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