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The Midnight Brigade
By Adam Borba
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- Trade Paperback $7.99 $11.99 CAD
- ebook $6.99 $8.99 CAD
- Hardcover $16.99 $22.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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Carl Chesterfield wishes he could speak up—whether that means being honest with his father about the family's new (and failing) food truck, reaching out to a potential friend, or alerting others to the fact that monsters might be secretly overrunning his hometown of Pittsburgh. There's plenty to fret over. And plenty to question.
When a flyer about a mysterious monster-seeking group called the Midnight Brigade catches his eye, Carl sees an opportunity to find answers. Little does he know, his curiosity will lead him to find an incredible discovery under one of his city's magnificent bridges and to be bolder than he ever imagined. Chock-full of humor and heart, this is the quirky tale of three unexpected friends and the crankiest troll with a heart of gold.
Carl’s parents were fighting again the first night it happened.
Mr. and Mrs. Chesterfield fought about everything. Misunderstandings. Facts. Opinions. Neglected chores. If it was possible to squabble about something, Carl’s parents did. They hadn’t always been this way. But lately, Carl’s father was less than happy at work, and he often brought that unhappiness home.
When his parents shouted and stomped around their bedroom, the pale-blue wall separating their room from his shook and the ancient ceiling fan above him rattled. As Carl gripped his sheets, he worried the vibrations would cause the rickety old thing to crash down on him. Why would anyone put a fan above a bed, he wondered. It seemed specifically intended to cause insomnia and nightmares.
Whenever the fighting got bad, Carl would sit on his windowsill and count bridges. There was something soothing about a sturdy bridge. He could see quite a few from his second-story perch. Thirty-three, to be exact. He took comfort in that number (though not enough comfort to stop worrying about his parents).
Then he saw it. At first he thought his parents’ yelling and stomping were to blame, but he quickly decided that was impossible. A bridge wobbled. Teetered a foot to the left, then back again. Like a squirrel poking its head around a tree. Only for a moment. But bridges shouldn’t move at all, at least not a bridge made from hundreds of tons of Pittsburgh steel. What could cause such a thing? He stared at the bridge until his mother yelled, “Something has to change!” Then his parents went quiet. Carl dared the bridge to budge again. Had his eyes played a trick on him? Must have, he thought as he climbed into bed. Then, as he drifted to sleep, he could’ve sworn he heard something deep in the city growl in pain.
Carl’s father’s side of the family had lived in Pittsburgh for five generations. Mr. Chesterfield was an engineer by trade and a bridge builder in practice. Carl thought Pittsburgh was as good a place as any for a bridge builder to live. The city had over four hundred bridges, and dozens of those had been built by Carl’s father and his father before him, and Carl’s great-grandfather before that. Bridge building was a noble profession, allowing Pittsburghers to travel from one end of something to the other end of something else. Without a bridge, they would be forced to go around.
Unfortunately, after a city has constructed over four hundred bridges, few places remain for new bridges to be built. So, rather than building new bridges, Carl’s dad mostly repaired old ones. But bridge repairing wasn’t what he had signed up for. Instead of designing something new, he now restored and replicated someone else’s work. He missed creating. Missed making his own decisions.
Recently, the bridges in Pittsburgh needed to be repaired at a curiously high rate. Not astronomically higher than bridges elsewhere, but enough that it was noticeable to the people who kept track of that sort of thing. It troubled Carl. It also kept Mr. Chesterfield busy at work, only his heart wasn’t in it. Carl’s father needed to find a new noble profession. But what do Pittsburghers need as much as traveling from one end of something to the other end of something else? He pondered this aloud with his son on a Sunday stroll. It was cold for late February, but their puffy coats and Mr. Chesterfield’s ability to make Carl laugh helped. Like when he rubbed his coat’s sleeves against his sides to make record-scratching sounds or pretended he could only move in slow motion. As they talked, they pulled out and unwrapped two peanut butter and tomato sandwiches. And after they’d taken bites, made faces, then tossed their less-than-tasty sandwiches into the trash, something caught Mr. Chesterfield’s eye.
In the trash can beneath the hardly eaten sandwiches was a newspaper with two classified ads that had been overlooked by all other Pittsburghers—two seemingly unrelated ads that would set the Chesterfield family on a life-altering path.
The first ad was for a quarter acre of land under one of Pittsburgh’s oldest bridges—one that Carl’s great-grandfather had helped build. The second ad was for a food truck with a busted engine and blown tires—one that had a “decently working kitchen with limited assembly required” (rust included—no extra charge). Mr. Chesterfield explained that the ads must have been placed specifically for him. And he was never wrong (except for the times when he was).
Carl did his best to unpack those thoughts as they crossed the street to a diner. He was reasonably certain two separate ads wouldn’t target his father. But not wanting to rock the boat, Carl simply gave a supportive nod and listened to his dad ramble while an uneasy feeling grew inside him.
As the diner’s waiter delivered plates of burgers and fries, Carl’s father announced that he would buy the food truck and open it on that quarter acre of land. “What’s more noble than feeding the masses?” he asked as he smacked ketchup out of a bottle and onto his plate. “It’s the perfect job for me,” he proclaimed. Carl said nothing but knew his father was mistaken. Mr. Chesterfield had made the peanut butter and tomato sandwiches.
While Mr. Chesterfield boasted about how successful his soon-to-be-launched truck would be, Carl worried about the bridges his father would no longer repair. Why did they need to be repaired so often? And had that bridge outside his window actually moved?
His father sighed and explained that the damage wasn’t typical wear and tear caused by Pittsburghers using the bridges to travel from one end of something to the other end of something else. The repairs needed to be done to damage that seemed intentional. And there was no way Carl had seen a bridge move—“Our bridges have been built expertly, by Chesterfields.”
“Won’t you, uh, miss working on them?” asked Carl.
“They’ll be fine,” said Mr. Chesterfield, scooping up his hamburger. Carl watched as his father took a chomp and continued to describe the damage, huffing with disdain. “It is annoying, though. Chunks of steel ripped in the night, and rows and rows of deep scratches…”
It all seemed like the opposite of fine to Carl, whose stomach dropped as he watched his father chew.
“Like, um, something’s taking bites out of them?” asked Carl.
“Bites? I guess that’s one way to put it. It’s all disrespectful, really.”
“But who?” Carl wondered. Mr. Chesterfield had no answer. And to Carl’s disappointment, his father didn’t seem interested in finding out either. But Carl was.
That’s when Carl began to suspect that Pittsburgh was secretly overrun by monsters.
Carl hadn’t slept since the night he saw the bridge move. Wherever he went, he had the feeling he’d just missed a monster out of the corner of his eye. But his lack of sleep gave him plenty of time to search for answers. He looked up the word monster in the dictionary (it wasn’t that useful). He checked under his bed and in his closet. And he spent countless hours gazing out his window at the city.
Meanwhile, his father had set out to obtain a loan to start his new business. Mr. Chesterfield didn’t think borrowing money would be an issue. As he told Carl, he had eaten three meals a day for nearly forty years, and if that didn’t qualify him to launch his own food enterprise, what would? The twenty-one banks he visited saw things differently.
“You need relevant experience,” said one bank.
“You don’t even know how to cook,” said another.
“You’re just so incredibly average,” sighed the twenty-first.
And that was all the motivation Mr. Chesterfield needed. He was average. Incredibly so! He excitedly explained to his son that if he liked something, “then by golly so will the average customer. If the banks won’t give me a loan, I’ll just find the money another way.” Mr. Chesterfield was certain he had the instincts of the everyman, and that his food truck was bound to be a smashing success.
Carl’s mother disagreed. And she was the rational parent, so it was hard for Carl not to silently take her side during dinner in the family’s old town house.
“You’ve lost your mind,” said Mrs. Chesterfield.
“My plan is foolproof,” said Mr. Chesterfield.
“Any plan you had would have to be foolproof,” mumbled Mrs. Chesterfield. “How did you even convince a bank to give you a loan?”
“I took out a second mortgage instead,” said Mr. Chesterfield.
Carl wasn’t sure what that meant, but by the way his mother’s face fell he knew that it wasn’t good, so he sank into his chair.
“Are you joking?” asked Mrs. Chesterfield.
“There’s no need to overreact,” replied Mr. Chesterfield. “What’s the big deal?”
Carl attempted to sink lower as he watched his mother’s fingernails dig into the dining room table. “The big deal is that I’ve become accustomed to sleeping with a roof over our heads, and now you’re risking our home so you can borrow money to sell food when you can barely prepare your own cereal.”
Carl was used to his parents fighting, but that didn’t mean he liked it. So as the argument continued, he slid all the way out of the chair and headed upstairs. As he closed the door to his room, he heard his mother shout at his father, “I can’t believe you kept this a secret from me until now!”
Carl’s parents were wonderful at keeping secrets. As far as he could tell, they knew little about each other beyond the obvious:
Mr. Chesterfield had wiry muscles and sun-kissed skin from decades of building things outside with his hands, and a mustache that made up for the hair he was losing on his head.
Mrs. Chesterfield wore her hair up in a perfect bun and possessed the confident chin and posture of a former ballerina.
Financially, they were in over their heads.
And they loved their son very much.
Like most kids, Carl had a limited understanding of real estate law. Listening to his parents yell through the walls, he determined that since they had “closed escrow,” they now officially owned that underdeveloped patch of land downtown. His father said it was an ideal location for his new business. His mother said his father was an idiot.
The yelling made sleep more difficult than ever. Because Carl didn’t have any art or photographs on his walls to stare at, he spent the evening counting the rotations of his rickety ceiling fan in an attempt to keep his mind off the fighting.
Two hours after the argument began, it came to a sudden stop and Carl heard water running, which he knew meant his mother had taken a break to brush her teeth. Mrs. Chesterfield was a dental hygienist at the city’s most respected practice for cleanings and oral surgery. She told Carl that teeth had been her passion since she was a little girl. She flossed twice a day and never had to lie about it. But lately Carl noticed that his mother had been losing her enthusiasm for teeth besides her own. He suspected that years of hearing how much patients dreaded coming for appointments had worn her down, and that she couldn’t understand why others didn’t love brushing as much as she did. Still, his mother continued working because there were bills to pay. He knew she wanted the best for him. Though neither of them seemed to know what that was. Meanwhile his father had secretly quit working as soon as the check from their second mortgage arrived. He presumed he knew best. Carl doubted that was the case.
Carl’s father took a detour on the drive to school the next morning because the bridge they typically used to cross the Monongahela River was closed for repairs. “Haven’t seen a shutdown of that one in my life,” mumbled Mr. Chesterfield as he drummed on the steering wheel. Carl swore he saw teeth marks on the bridge as they drove past. He worried that the clues supporting a monster infestation were piling up.
A few blocks later, Mr. Chesterfield pulled in front of Carl’s school. Carl thanked his father for the ride, took a deep breath, and climbed out to face the day.
Carl Chesterfield was the shortest boy in his class. He had pencil-thin arms and holes in all his jeans. His straight, dark hair was cut by his mother. He didn’t have friends. His mom’s awful haircuts didn’t help. His shyness didn’t either. Carl was a mediocre student and generally overlooked by his classmates, but he had one special skill—Carl was an excellent observer. He was the first to notice when someone got new clothes. To recognize who was out sick. To pick up on who was having a great day, or who was feeling sad. He watched. He listened. He processed. He empathized. He formed conclusions. And above all, he worried. About his parents. About strangers. About himself. But he never shared his insights or concerns with anyone. He wanted to, but what if the person he told didn’t care? What then?
As an observer, he was the first (and perhaps only) student to notice the turquoise flyer on the bulletin board on the way to lunch:
SOMETHING IS RAVAGING OUR BRIDGES, PEOPLE.
Carl couldn’t believe it. Was someone playing a joke on him? He hadn’t told his theory to anyone, so how could they? Perhaps somebody actually shared his fear. He scratched his head as he wondered who The MB was. He couldn’t recall having a class with anyone who had those initials. He wished he knew who had posted the flyer. Maybe that person could be a friend.
As usual, Carl was among the first students in the cafeteria, a room that always smelled of sloppy joes and all-purpose cleaner. It had been months since sloppy joes were even on the menu. Carl was never slowed by conversation on his way to lunch. Sometimes kids would snicker at his hair in the hall, but that was typically the extent of his social interaction. Mostly Carl felt invisible, which made him feel more safe than sad. Though today was different. Today, when he saw Teddy—the skinny, pale kid with all the freckles and floppy red hair, who always wore the same orange windbreaker—Teddy brought a finger to his lips and shushed him. Teddy was weird.
Carl always sat at the cafeteria’s center table with open seats on either side of him, and open they would remain. Students would often eat across from Carl, but that wasn’t the same as sitting with him. They’d talk to friends on their left or on their right—just never on the other side of the table, to Carl. The lunchroom, however, was a great place for Carl to observe. He was so caught up in observation that he didn’t register the girl with the backward baseball cap slipping into a seat next to him. He’d seen the girl before but never noticed her, which is a distinction both small and enormous.
“Hey, Quiet Kid,” she whispered. “Hold this for me.”
Carl looked down to see a green metallic marker in a fist under the table. Without hesitating, he took the marker and slipped it into a pocket in his jeans. Then he looked up to see the smirk on her face. He locked eyes with the girl long enough to notice that hers were hazel.
“Thanks, Quiet Kid.”
And with that she slipped away, leaving Carl to wonder.
There was a commotion outside the cafeteria after lunch. An ocean of students packed the hall. Carl pushed his way through the crowd, anxious to observe.
Principal Wilkinson was a stout man in his late fifties with a red face. This afternoon his face was redder than usual. Clearly he took issue with Principal Wilkinson is a creep scrawled across the not-quite-yellow eighth-grade lockers in metallic green. And perhaps he took more issue with the doodle of him below the insult. Though it was skillfully drawn, the doodle’s artist had been less than flattering with Wilkinson’s face.
“It wasn’t me,” said the girl with the backward baseball cap.
“Then who?” Principal Wilkinson asked. His pointer finger inches from her face, beads of sweat forming on his brow.
She pulled her pants pockets inside out. “Someone else who thinks you’re a creep, I guess?”
The crowd gasped as Principal Wilkinson’s face went from red to scarlet. He shook his head, patted a hand on the back of his neck.
“Back to class. Everyone.”
The girl in the baseball cap and the rest of the crowd turned on their heels and made their ways from the lockers. Carl stood a moment longer. He’d never seen a man’s head explode and feared this might be his only opportunity. You could hear a pin drop in the hallway. So of course Principal Wilkinson heard that green metallic marker hit the linoleum after it fell through a hole in the pocket of Carl’s jeans.
Carl’s invisibility had worn off.
On the surface, Principal Wilkinson’s office was underwhelming. As a shy boy who kept to himself, Carl had never had the opportunity to be called to a principal’s office. He’d always imagined it as more of a police interrogation room. Two-way mirror. A steel table with handcuffs in the middle. A no-nonsense older detective in the corner who doesn’t “have time for it anymore.” But this was just a cramped room with the same wooden desk his teachers had—only this desk had a very angry principal on the opposite side of it, and that very angry principal made the room much scarier than it would have been otherwise.
“I’ve never been so disrespected in my life,” said the principal. “And you damaged school property. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Carl wondered if the principal could hear his heart pounding. He gulped and stared at Wilkinson for some time before he realized the man wouldn’t speak again until he replied. It had been a while since Carl had said anything for himself to anyone other than his parents. He was somewhat out of his depth. And the room seemed to be spinning, which was unhelpful.
“I’m, um, sorry?”
“So, you admit it?”
The words surprised Carl more than they did the principal. It was at that moment that Carl realized he had a crush on the girl with the backward baseball cap. And it was a moment later that Principal Wilkinson suspended Carl from school for the next two weeks.
After some serious soul-searching, Carl’s parents came to grips with his suspension. They reasoned that it was a one-time slip, and Carl reasoned that the two of them had bigger fish to fry.
As punishment (and to fill his newly found free time), Carl spent school hours helping his father get the food truck ready. But “helping get the food truck ready” mostly consisted of Carl sitting on an empty paint bucket, working on math homework, and worrying about monsters while Mr. Chesterfield boasted about how successful his business would be.
The new truck had been towed to the quarter acre of land under a bridge. The land wasn’t much to look at—mostly dirt, uneven grass, stones, and weeds. The food truck (which wasn’t much to look at either) sat in front of a large pile of rocks that were stacked two school buses high. The ad hadn’t mentioned the pile, but Mr. Chesterfield told Carl it was probably the reason the land was so expensive.
“The rocks will be a conversation piece for diners,” Mr. Chesterfield said. “And you can’t put a price on that.”
Carl forced a smile.
A dozen yards from the truck were three wooden picnic tables that Carl and his father had dragged in for customers. They were covered in splinters when Mr. Chesterfield first bought them, but an afternoon of sanding made them comfortable enough for short periods of sitting.
The truck itself was caked in dirt and rust. And it was undrivable (as advertised). But it did have a decently working kitchen. Unfortunately, decently working and completely working aren’t the same thing. The water didn’t run. The gas didn’t flow. And there were no power outlets to speak of. So there were plenty of unforeseen expenses.
Carl looked up at the bridge from his bucket and wondered if it was the one he’d seen shaking outside his bedroom window. “Do you, um, think it’s safe?”
Mr. Chesterfield chuckled. “Of course!” He beamed at the bridge with pride. “You know, this one was built by your great-grandfather, and now we own a piece of land beneath it. There’s something poetic about that. Maybe someday I’ll write a haiku.”
The boy gave his dad a supportive nod.
After further examination, Carl deemed the bridge a fine one, or at least one of Pittsburgh’s four hundred best. It was a suspension bridge made of proud Pittsburgh steel with two strong towers standing tall from the ground. One tower next to his family’s quarter acre and the other tower on the other side of something else. The Ohio River (which, oddly, was in Pennsylvania) flowed between. An asphalt road was suspended across the bridge (hence the name suspension). A series of steel cables tied the road to the towers, with each cable doing its part to hold the load. Carl thought it was an engineering marvel. He was also reasonably certain there were new scratches on its underside—ten gashes, each about a hand’s length apart and as long as one of his legs.
Carl and his father scrubbed the truck to discover cream-colored paint underneath. As Carl sat back on his bucket to catch his breath, it occurred to him that the truck was kind of like a blank canvas with endless possibilities for design. As Carl began to share a few ideas for the food truck, his father politely stopped him and clarified how wrong that instinct was.
“It’s like I told your mother,” explained Mr. Chesterfield as he juggled cans of car wax, “the whole genius of my plan is that I alone make the decisions.”
So Carl kept the bucket warm. Quietly cringing and keeping his opinions to himself.
The cream-colored paint was replaced with an eggshell white. Cleanly executed.
The picnic tables were painted tan to complement the truck. Conservatively done.
The menu would have things like chicken-fried steaks, turkey sandwiches, and garden salads. Thoughtfully chosen.
As Carl sat on his bucket watching it come together, he couldn’t help but think the truck and its surroundings still felt like a blank canvas. He debated saying something but didn’t want to upset his father. What if he hurt his feelings? What if he made a bad suggestion? And his father had been clear that he didn’t want anyone else’s opinions anyway.
When they finished the exterior of the food truck, Mr. Chesterfield couldn’t have been more pleased. Now they just needed to remodel the kitchen. In less than a week they would open for business and their smashing successfulness could commence.
- * "Tongue-in-cheek frolic."—Booklist, starred
- "[The] humorous novel features a likable cast of middle school kids and their families...spot art greatly enhances the text, bringing the setting and characters' emotions to life...An unusual story about forging new bonds."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Carl’s parents are realistically flawed, and his mix of feelings around their constant fighting ring true...through Borba’s whimsical, sincere debut."—Publishers Weekly
- “Pittsburgh! Monsters! Pierogies! This book has all my favorite things packed into a delightful, mysterious adventure!” —Jonathan Auxier, NYT bestselling author of The Night Gardener
- "A delightful, deeply felt, entirely original debut. You'll remember these characters and their stories long after you close the book, and you'll never look at a bridge the same way again. I'll be sending in my application to join the Midnight Brigade right away!"—Jarrett Lerner, creator of the Enginerds series
"...dramatic and amusing...[a] cheering read for children ages 8-12. In Mr. Borba's milieu, children admire and respect their parents, parents admire and respect their children, and trolls give good advice."—WSJ
- On Sale
- Sep 13, 2022
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers