Authors: Lisa Bullard
I wondered if he'd just paid for his stuff with the same money I'd seen Gram slipping him the day before; he didn't smell like somebody who held down a regular nine-to-five job.
Gram wasn't looking so happy anymore. I paid and we wheeled the bike outside. And the whole time, I kept thinking how ticked I was at Crazy Carl. I mean, it wasn't that I cared about him hating on me or anything, but I was feeling really bad that he'd managed to dump all over Gram's good mood.
She didn't say anything until I'd finished loading the bike into the back of the truck. “I'm not sure what to tell you about Carl, Travis. He wasn't always like this.”
She paused and rubbed her hand along a scratch in the truck's paint. “Your father was just a little boy when your grandfather died in the car accident.” She reached down and rubbed her leg. “The same accident where I acquired this limp. Carl was a buddy of your grandfather's, and he stepped in and took on a fatherly role with John, while I was recovering and afterward. I was so grateful for thatâJohn was a boy who really needed a good man in his life, and Carl was certainly there for him when he was a little guy. He took him fishing and later hunting, taught him something about construction. Then, as your father got older, it was clear Carl was having some problemsâbut things really went downhill for him after John disappeared.”
She looked over at the giant fish statue and shook her head. “In all these years, whatever his problems, I've never known Carl to hurt a flea. I can't imagine why he's taken such a dislike to you. Maybe you remind him too much of your father and it's stirred up hard memories for him. I guess you should stay out of his way as much as you can.”
Like that wasn't already my plan.
But I was tired of talking about Crazy Carl, and I really wanted to put the happy-birthday look back onto Gram's face. So I gestured at the bike. “Thank you. It's a really great bike. I love it.”
And there she went, smiling this big face-splitter. Then we both just stood there looking at each other while the thank-you-hug moment passed us by, because even when I saw her when I was little, she was never a start-it-off hugger. Back then, I had always hugged first and it always seemed to take her by surprise. Maybe I should have gone ahead and tried it again now, but I had given up on hugging altogether a while back.
Gram's watch alarm suddenly chirped, and we both jumped a little. “Oh, I said we'd be at the church by now. Travis, would you run across the street to the grocery store? Go to the deli counter and tell them you're picking up the big order for the church fundraiser.” She handed me another wad of cash. “I'll go pick up the order at the bakery and meet you here at the truck.”
Of course, that wasn't as easy as it sounded, because Crazy Carl had worked his way over to the grocery store. I mean, it wasn't like I was scared of him or anythingâI just didn't need any more of the dude's aggravation. So after I got the stuff for Gram, I stood behind this big pyramid built out of cans of baked beans over by the checkout, where I could hang and watch, all nonchalantly, until I saw Crazy Carl leave the store.
Then suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder from behind. And of course my reflexes took over, and I wheeled around and my foot kind of kicked out, and next thing I knew, bean cans were flying everywhere and rolling down two aisles. One knocked over this little kid like a bowling pin. He started howling, and his mother gave me The Look before she went to scoop him up.
And turns out it was just this guy in a store apron behind me. He was shaking his head and saying, “I was going to ask if I could help you find anything, son, but I see you've already located our bean selection.”
I helped Apron Guy rebuild the can pyramid, my face feeling hot enough to toast marshmallows, while this really pretty high school checkout girl laughed her face off the whole time.
So even though the church was just down at the end of the next block, we were really late showing up. And I guess that was a big deal, because as soon as we walked into this big room in the basement, a whole group of old ladies charged over, saying stuff like, “Oh, we couldn't imagine what happenedâyou're always on time for everything, Lois,” as they closed in around us like a pack going in for the kill. And even though they were all talking to Gram, they were really staring at me the whole time.
Which, I gotta say, was a little bit freaky. I mean, I just wasn't used to all those old people in one place. Where I live in California, we pretty much don't have any old-timers. I don't know what happens to them, but it's as if they don't let people back in through the gates once their hair turns gray.
“Ladies, I'd like to present my grandson, Travis,” said Gram. “He's here on a little visit from California. Travis, the people in town call us the Church Ladies.” She took me around the circle, and each Church Lady shook my hand as Gram said everyone's name, all of them nodding and smiling at me as we worked our way one by one until it was as if we'd set loose a room full of wrinkly bobble heads.
No way I was going to remember the names of all of Gram's posse, so I spent the next couple hours “yes ma'am”âing, hauling folding chairs, clanking down tables, and being polite while they all told me the Christmas-letter versions of their grandkids' lives. I had been thinking that maybe keeping your thoughts to yourself was an old-lady thing in general, but it turned out that it was mostly just a Gram thing. The rest of the posse chattered more than the Gossip Girls' table in the school cafeteria, their voices bouncing off the whitewashed cement walls so it sounded as if they'd multiplied themselves since we'd shown up.
But it wasn't so bad, really, until one of them suddenly put her hands onto her hips and looked me up and down. “I just can't get over how much you look like your father!”
And of course that was the exact moment when the room happened to be quiet. They all turned to stare at me again and started in on that nodding thing again too, until Gram limped over and said, “I think you've earned your freedom, Travis,” and they scurried away.
“You worked hard today. Thank you,” Gram said, reaching out to hand me another couple of bills from her purse. “Stop in town and buy yourself some lunch. Be careful when you go out to the island. I'll be home soon.” Then she squeezed my arm, right where Crazy Carl had squeezed. It really hurt, but I didn't let her know that. “You're a good boy,” she said, and walked away while I rubbed my arm and stared after her.
I debated just zooming right through town, considering I'd had more than my share of strangers staring at me, but the pancakes seemed to have disappeared years ago. So I got three burgers to go from the cafÃ©. I was about to buy a soda from the vending machine outside the gas station, but then I got closer and realized what it was.
Live bait. The machine actually sold live bait. What did it say about my life that I had willingly traded in California for a town where the vending machines sold worms?
So I went into the gas station, got my cold caffeine fix, and then hit the road again, sucking it all down as I pedaled past the green-striped fields back to Gram's. The church-basement smell of old ladies had cleared away and I was feeling pretty good. Until I saw Iz, sitting all folded around herself in Gram's yard. My stomach did this major flip-flop, and for a minute I was afraid I was going to hurl, but then everything settled down. Guess they're right that you should never drink and ride.
I wasn't sure if my guts were jumping because seeing Iz made me flash back to lying next to her on the raft the night before, or if it was because seeing her reminded me all over again about the bank-robber thing.
“Did you ask your grandma if she still had any of your dad's stuff so you could look through it?” She had this eager look on her face, so I squatted down and pretended to be really interested in some ants scurrying around a mega-anthill in the grass.
“Uhâdidn't get a chance yet,” I said.
Iz sighed real loud. “But last night you said you wouldâ”
“Heads up!” I heard a voice yell. I looked up, grateful for the interruption, just in time to see a football arrowing directly for me. I barely managed to get my hands up to deflect it before it would have knocked me back. Kenny trotted over and looked at me sadly.
“You're supposed to
it, not hide from it.” He picked up the football, tossed it into the air, and caught it one-handed.
Iz unfolded and stood up in one smooth motion, reaching out to try and snag the ball from him. “Island timeâsay bye-bye to your baby, Kenny.”
Kenny grumbled and stuck out his lip like he was going to argue, but Iz fisted her hands on her hips and he finally set the football down with a little pat on its leathered side. I hoped he'd keep on moaning; in the process of prodding him along, Iz seemed to have forgotten my broken promise about talking to Gram. We walked around to the lake side of the house, over to Kenny's dock, and loaded into his boat while Kenny continued to mumble under his breath.
The island wasn't that far out. We were halfway there, bouncing over seagull surf, when I realized something was missing. “No shovels?” I asked. “I thought the point of going out here was to dig for buried treasure.”
Iz shook her head. “It's like Kenny told you yesterdayâpeople have turned over the entire island ten times in the past few years. We're not going to waste our energy on thatâwe're going to look for landmarks,” she said.
“Landmarks? You mean like a rock with an arrow painted on it pointing to a cave door?” I went on to point like a hunting dog and did my best Scooby-Doo imitation for her. “Look, it's a clue.”
Kenny snickered, but Iz's dark eyebrows narrowed over her eyes in a way that told me I'd better tread carefully.
“No, dipwad, I mean I want you to walk around a little bit and check things out. That way, if you ever do get up the courage to ask your grandma about looking through your dad's things, you'll recognize a map of the island if you see one. Get it now?”
“Mood swings aheadâhold on to your life jackets, mateys,” said Kenny. Iz transferred her scowl to him but Kenny just grinned back.
“I'm still a little confused,” I said hurriedly, before Iz got it into her head to stage a mutiny. “I guess it just doesn't make sense to me. Tell me again why everybody in town is convinced this money is stashed on the island somewhere.”
Iz put on that I-better-not-have-to-say-this-again voice that Ma used sometimes. “Why else would your dad be out on the lake on such a stormy night other than to bury the money before the cops showed up?” She swept her arm through the air, waving it across the stretch of island.
Suddenly Kenny called out, “Little help here, Iz!”
We were within a few feet of the island's shoreline. Kenny cut the motor and Iz stood up on her seat, balanced a hand on the edge of the boat, and then jumped over into the water when we were just about to kiss the shore. She guided the bow up onto the sand. Kenny gave me a little shove.
“Man overboard,” he said, climbing over the edge himself with the anchor in hand. He made sure one end of the rope was tied to the boat and then drove the anchor deep into the sand a few feet up the beach. Iz pulled the boat higher up onto the shore.
I looked around the island, thinking about what Iz had said, while the two of them beached the boat. It sounded as if everybody in Long Past Nowhere had decided to go ahead and let themselves believe that the bank money was buried here. I mean, a large sum of missing money? Deserted island? Nothing better to do with your time? Hello! I'd probably buy into the buried-treasure theory myself if I didn't happen to be related to the guy who had to go sleep with the fishes in order for the whole fairy tale to hang together.
I figured it was way more likely my father had just turned the boat loose as a false trail and then hauled off with the
to someplace where they don't ask too many hard questions. And the truth was, I wasn't at all sure I liked that ending any better. I mean, the guy knew I was baking in Ma's oven and that my timer was set for just a few months away, and instead of sticking around to meet me someday, he chose to form a lasting relationship with a pile of cash? Oh, happy birthday to me!
I was smart enough not to point out any of my reasoning to Iz, given the mood she seemed to be in. It was clear she needed to believe the whole buried-treasure thing, the way some people need to believe in reality TV. If she wanted to buy into it so badly, no reason for me to be the buzzkill. Besides, I'd already figured out I could spend my time in Minnesota either (A) hanging with Kenny and Iz playing Pirates of the Corn and Soybeans, or (B) hanging with the Church Ladies. Iz was a whole lot hotter than Mrs. Faltzkog, so I opted for A.
But something in me couldn't resist throwing out, “So how do you figure you'll be the one to finally crack the whole mystery of the missing money, Nancy Drew?”
Iz rolled her eyes and walked away.
As soon as her back was turned, Kenny leaned toward me and whispered loudly, “I know from past experience it ain't worth it, man; don't mess with Texas.”
“I heard that!” said Iz. “Are you idiots coming with me or not?”
We wandered the island, beating our way around trees and through tall grass and underbrush. The island wasn't very big; we covered the whole thing from one end to the other in an easy hike. I guess it was pretty, or whatever nice thing you can find to say about a deserted hunk of land. But since there weren't any planks to walk or cannons to set off, or even any squawking parrots yelling “Arrrrggggg,” it didn't seem as fun and piratey as I had hoped.
I pretended to memorize every crooked tree limb and the curve of every big rock as Iz pointed them out like some overly helpful Hollywood Celebrity Homes tour guide. She told me her family had spent a lot of time out there when she was a little kid, and I guess the place was a big deal to her, because she had made up silly names for almost everything: Acorn Academy for this one gigantic oak; Fairy Rock for a big boulder that sparkled in the sun; Fingers-to-Heaven for a jagged-topped ten-foot stump.