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By Tony Abbott
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A creepy phone call. An old, yellowed postcard. A bizarre magazine story. And a strange group of funeral-goers who seem to follow their every move-all contain clues that will send Jason and Dia on an adventure to uncover extraordinary family secrets.
Award-winning author Tony Abbott weaves an intriguing and entertaining mystery of adventure, friendship and family.
To my grandmother Mary Banyar 1900–1978
"She died today."
It was the first Wednesday night after school let out for the summer. I had just switched on the television and was searching with the remote —reality, reality, news, rerun, reality — when the phone rang, and my mother answered it.
"Wait, say that again?" I said.
She pulled the phone away from her face and cupped her hand over it. "She died this afternoon. Your father wants you to come down for a few days. You can get a standby flight in the morning."
I hit the mute button on the remote. "Grandma?"
"He wants you there. There's a lot to do."
I kept watching the screen, but my eyes began to unfocus.
My grandmother. A hospital had called two weeks ago to say she had been brought in with a stroke and was in a coma, so Dad took the next plane down from Boston and had been there ever since. I'd never met Grandma. We never saw her as a family, and she didn't travel. Even my father said that when he was young she wasn't around very much, and he was sometimes brought up by other people, which made her seem odd to me.
I had no clue then about how she lived or who she was or what was going to happen to me because of her.
"I just got out of school," I said, glancing up at my mother. "It hasn't even been a week. I really don't want to —"
"He'll call you back," she said into the phone. "Yes . . . I know . . . Ray, I know!" Click. "You're going."
We hadn't really talked about Grandma much since she had gone "off," as my mother called it. Dementia-of-the-Alzheimer's-Type, she told a friend on the phone once. I was three or four when that started. Mom said it was sad when this happened to old people. "It really is," she said. But she also said that my grandmother insisted she could fly — that she was "vehement" about it. I could tell the idea of a flying old lady really freaked my mother out. Other times, Dad let it slip that Grandma had called claiming she was in danger and had to escape, or was being attacked by alligators.
"Again?" Mom said. "They really should keep reptiles away from older people."
There was something going on between my parents about Grandma, but I never knew exactly what it was. I think all the talk and the silences embarrassed my dad, especially in front of me, so after a while he didn't talk about her, and neither did we.
One thing I do remember. My dad once received a letter from St. Petersburg where she lived. In it was a photograph of her sitting in a wheelchair in front of a little green house. She looked like a tiny bird skeleton, fragile, bony. She was as thin as nothing.
I remember thinking she would probably die soon. In a few weeks at most. Weeks stretched into months and finally into years. She was eighty-two on her last birthday. Her name was Agnes Monroe Huff.
"What does Dad actually want me there for?" I asked, flipping the sound back on and turning it low. "I don't know how to do anything. Why not you? I can stay with Becca or Mark."
She was already marching upstairs. "I have to fly this weekend for the bank," she called. "You're going down there. I'll get your duffel bag from the attic. Shut that off, Jason. Now."
So my name is Jason, and I think my family is splitting up.
When the jet lifted off the runway the next morning, I couldn't stop thinking about me being in the air and my parents on the ground in two different places, and it seemed so obvious that I was amazed it had taken me so long to see it. Hector knew it for I don't know how long. The way he finally said it a couple of years ago was as if he thought I knew it, too.
We were at lunch on Tuesday the first week of sixth grade, comparing notes about who in our homeroom had had the best summer experience ("Paris with my two uncles," "the doctor said I nearly died," "rafting, and I even saw a bear!" compared to my "lawn mowing" and Hector's "hammocking, because," as he said, "I'm the hammock king!"), when I opened my lunch bag, looked in, and pretended to gag.
"Jeez, what is that? Sliced dog brain? Who shopped at the morgue this week?"
Hector peeked into my lunch bag. He wasn't playing along. "Yeah, what do you expect?"
"What does that mean?"
"Are you kidding?" he said. "I mean, I'm always at your house. I see stuff. Can't you tell your family's sort of falling apart? School lunches are a real tip-off."
"What? You're nuts."
"And not even sort of falling apart. You actually are. But not all over the place like my cousin's family. What a circus that is, with the probation and the guardian. No, you guys are being pretty neat about it. So I have to say: dude, well done."
"Neat? What are you talking about neat? We're fine. You're nuts."
Hector shrugged and stuffed a baby carrot into his mouth. "Okay. I'm nuts. Mmm. Vegetables. Someone cares for Hecky."
I hadn't looked. I hadn't seen. But after Hector said that, it was all I could see. And I saw it in hundreds of little things. A comment at dinner one night. My dad having an edge in his voice that I had never noticed before. My mother going out and him coming in and calling her name, not knowing she was already gone.
"I was going to go, too," Dad said to me, as if asking me to take sides. "I can stand her parents, you know."
"Sure," I said. "I know."
"I can stand them for a few hours," he said.
And her always redoing things he had just done. Restacking the dishes in the dishwasher. Reordering the cake he had already ordered for my birthday because she assumed he didn't remember to do it but didn't check with him to see if he did.
"I thought you forgot" was her explanation.
It made him seem like a loser — she made him seem like a loser sometimes. I hated it, but I wasn't sure what to think.
Was she right?
One thing I did know was that Hector was right. We were neat. No yelling. No big scenes. Sometimes my father would drink with supper. Not a lot, a beer or two, but he never used to do that. It made him quieter.
It didn't help that he kept sliding from one job to the next while Mom kept getting promoted. She worked in a big Boston bank and a couple of years ago had gotten a huge promotion. While Dad was still figuring out what he wanted to be, my mother had known for a long time, and she was doing it in a big way, especially now that I was going into high school. Mark and Becca were teenagers when I was born. She had waited a long time.
When I went upstairs to her room after Dad's phone call last night, she was ironing a white shirt for me. "It might be fun," she said. "Florida. After the business with your grandmother is over, I mean. Your friends would love to spend a few days or a week there. And kids make friends fast. It's a resort city, you know, St. Petersburg."
"You always say that," I said. "And a week? Who said a week?"
She turned to me. "I can't go right now. It's a busy season coming up. And the St. Louis meeting —"
"St. Louis? I thought you were going to Chicago."
"St. Louis is after Chicago," she said. "That's a lot of nights away from home. But if you're down there, I won't worry about you. Either of you."
"I'll be okay. I have cable, my computer. Becca's only in Brookline if I need somebody."
"Jason, you're thirteen. I can't leave you here alone for that long."
"So I can stay with Hector," I said. "Besides, Florida in the summer? In two minutes I'll be a puddle on the sidewalk. Or do they not have sidewalks yet? Is Florida even a state? Isn't it all submerged, anyway? You know, just, no. I don't want to. No way."
"No way? No way?" she said, slamming down the iron and stepping toward me, looking tired, but her face set hard. "Who do you think you are to say 'no way' to me? Who do you think I do all this for?"
"I don't know," I said. "You?"
She raised her hand as if to slap me, then dropped it. "Shine your loafers, smartmouth, you're going."
She was right. I was a smartmouth. And I had the paperwork to prove it. I was actually named student of the month twice in fifth grade. It all went downhill after Hector crunched his baby carrot.
"So guess what," I told him on the phone from my room. "I'm going to stupid Florida tomorrow. My grandmother died. My dad's there already. My mom's got a business trip to China or somewhere."
"Wow, your mother traveling. That is so new," he said. "Here's some advice. Don't make eye contact with the old folks, okay? Florida is filled with them, and they're always looking for new blood. You know, like vampires."
"But don't they all have false teeth?"
"Ah, my son," he said, "you are learning the ways."
"Yeah. Look. I gotta shine my shoes. Call you from hell."
Looking out the small window, watching the ground pull farther and farther away below me, I wondered if it would actually be that bad, or if it would be worse.
Three hours later the jet landed in Tampa. It was only noon, though it seemed as if I'd been traveling for days. The heat hit me in the face when the terminal doors opened on the parking lot. The air was thick, white, and wet. I was completely sticky inside a minute and a half. Even my eyes began to sweat.
Summer in Florida. Yay.
Blinking away the persperation, I looked around and saw Dad hurrying across the sidewalk to me. He seemed shorter than I remembered. More rumpled. Blurry at the edges. Even pale. How could he get pale with so much sun? Had he made eye contact with the old folks?
"Sorry, traffic," he said. "Thanks for coming." He took my backpack and duffel, walked with me for a bit, then dropped them on the ground behind a bright lime-green rental car. He beeped it open.
"Nice," I said. "What is this, the Hyundai Inchworm?"
He tossed the bags into the trunk and snapped down the lid with a laugh. "I'm glad you're here," he said.
"Oh, yeah. Me, too."
He kept his smile. "You'll like St. Pete."
Right. This was his place, after all, his hometown. He had grown up here with Grandma or whoever, which was the whole reason I was down here. I tried to remember her face from the photograph of her in the wheelchair. When I couldn't, I found myself thinking of any old dead skinny woman lying in a coffin. That just scared me.
"I'm sure," I said.
After getting out of the airport (in a completely roundabout way, it seemed to me), we drove toward the water. The roads were flat. The buildings were low. Everything was hot, flat, white, and flat. Soon we were on a long (mostly flat) bridge with a hump in the middle like an arching caterpillar.
"This is the Gandy Bridge. That's the second Gandy down there, from the fifties," he said, pointing to a low strip of concrete running alongside the bridge we were on. It stood a few feet above the water on concrete posts. It had old-fashioned street lamps curling over it. "The original Gandy from the twenties was the first bridge between Tampa and St. Petersburg. Six miles long. What we're on now is the latest Gandy."
Gandy, Gandy, Gandy. Maybe it was the latest, but it was jammed. I saw other bridges in the distance with faster-moving traffic.
"Why did we go this way?" I asked him. "It's so slow."
"This is how I always go," he said. Then he added, "Went. When I was in high school."
Looking at him then brought back the business with Mom at the airport that morning. After the ticketing and check-in, I was heading for the security line, when she suddenly took my arm and said "Jason" in a way that made make me stop and look at her.
"Your father has . . . oh, this is going to sound . . . uck . . ."
"What?" I said.
"I don't know. Ups and downs. In his life, I mean."
I swallowed and began to feel hot.
"Lots of things that he really doesn't talk about."
"Okay," I said.
"I mean, it's hard for him. Really hard. And it's easy for the rest of us — for me — to not know what to do about it. We're so busy, you know, with things, for that . . ."
"I sort of have to get in line," I said.
She kept holding my arm. "I'm sorry, but . . ." She was looking intently at me. "Jason, I just don't know what to do sometimes. Or what to say to make it better. Do you know what I mean?"
"Yeah, I know," I said. "He keeps stuff inside him. About Grandma. About everything."
She sort of jerked back at that. "Yes. He does."
There was an announcement over the system then, and we were back in the airport from wherever we had just been.
"Okay," I said. "I get it. Really."
When I thought all that was over with and we got to the security area, she said, "Jason, make sure he doesn't drink too much, okay?"
I turned. "What? Mom! How am I supposed to —"
I happened to catch the eye of the girl behind me who was suddenly all paying attention.
"Never mind," Mom said.
"Never mind. He won't drink. I'm sorry. This is too serious."
I turned away from the flat road and looked out the car's side window. The sun stood straight up in the sky, a burning ball of heat.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Dad said when we neared the end of "the Gandy" and drove onto real land again. The area on either side was thick with scrubby trees and white sand. Here and there brown palm leaves lay scattered, curled and stiff like body parts.
"It's super hot for sure. And flat."
"But this is nothing," he went on, smiling right and left like a tour guide. "What we just drove over is only Tampa Bay. Soon, you'll see real water. Maybe the day after tomorrow we'll go. After the funeral. The Gulf of Mexico. It's something to see. It's huge."
I hadn't noticed it at the airport with all the diesel exhaust from the buses, and even now it was pretty faint because we had the windows open, but I could smell beer on him. Not a lot, not a heavy smell; he wasn't drunk or anything, but I was pretty sure he'd had something.
"You're supposed to like water when you live in Florida," he said when we stopped at a light. "And sun."
"I don't live here," I said, turning to him. "Do you?"
The light changed, and he drove on without saying anything for a time, then: "No, Jason. No. Just until I sell Grandma's house. Then I'll be back up to Boston."
So that was it. Our family really was splitting up.
My grandmother's house was on a street called 30th Avenue North. All the streets were numbered like that in a huge grid, going both up and down the whole peninsula; kind of boring and confusing.
The house was a one-floor shoe box made of stucco and painted pastel green. It had old flaking windows and a tile roof and a square block of a garage. The hedge next to the driveway was neat on the top, but not on our side, so I guessed it was the neighbor's. The grass in the yard was long.
We pulled into the driveway and got out. While my dad took my stuff from the trunk, I looked up and down at the other houses, then at Grandma's. It seemed like a normal house, but small, and I was reminded of the last time my parents had talked about it.
"You should sell that place," Mom had said. "It's not far from the water. St. Petersburg is a resort, after all. Don't they call it the 'Sunshine Resort'?"
"City," he said. "The Sunshine City."
"We have someone at the bank who handles relocations. Bonnie could sell it for you —"
"No," he said. "My mom still lives there."
"She should go into a home."
You could see him get mad at that, but he swallowed it. "And not have a house there at all? She has help. She's all right for now."
"Why do we need a place there? I'm not retiring to Florida. It's worth money. Much more than she paid for it. Or whoever paid for it. Not your father. Maybe Mr. Fracker," she said, moving her hands but, glancing over and seeing me, not quite making air quotes around "father."
"Ha, ha," he said coldly, letting it show now.
That was a real dig. Dad's father, a guy named Walter Huff, had supposedly died long before Mom and Dad got married. Dad had never had much to say about him maybe because he didn't know him, either. But Mom didn't seem to buy it. From the comments she made, I think she thought he'd actually been in prison or something, and that Dad was ashamed of him. Mr. Fracker was a lawyer who said he knew Grandma and who had met Dad a few times over the years. But the lawyer was old and that was a long time ago, and it seemed sketchy, anyway, so who knows?
The less Dad said, the more Grandma seemed to become strange and shadowy and distant. I felt over and over that there was more to tell, but I didn't know who would tell it, and it was never told, anyway. It only got worse as Grandma got sicker and fought more alligators. Mom wanted Dad to close off the subject of Florida, to shut it all down, and never talk about it. His mother, his father, Mr. Fracker, the whole thing. More than all that, there was the splitting up to worry about, too, so I gave up trying to understand it.
Dad unlocked the front door, and we stepped in. It was cooler inside, but not much, and it was stale. My first thought was that he was keeping Grandma in there before the funeral. Was that how they did things in Florida?
"You can have the front bedroom," he said.
While he went through the house opening windows, I looked around. To the left of the front door off the living room were two bedrooms and a tiny bathroom. To the right was a larger room that went from the front to the back of the house.
"That's called the Florida room," he said.
The front and back walls of the Florida room were nearly all windows, the kind with slats of glass you crank open and closed. He cranked them open now. In the room were a desk and chair, a couch, and a long, low buffet for dishes, like we had in Boston.
The kitchen was no more than a hallway from the living room to the back door, and the backyard was small. The lawn needed to be cut there, too. There was a shed in the corner. I wondered if Grandma even had a mower and if Dad would ask me to cut the grass like I did at home. I hoped he wouldn't; it was so unbelievably hot outside.
Cartons were piled in every room of the house, some packed and taped, most empty and waiting to be filled.
"Trying to get it all cleared so we can sell it," he said as the air moved in and the stale smell began to lessen. "Not getting very far. And there are lots of things to fix up. Except for the kitchen tiles. For some reason, they're new. She let a lot of things go."
I nodded. "Well, she was sick."
He didn't say anything right away, then: "She was sick. The whole time, she was sick. So that's why . . ." He set down his keys on a little divider shelf between the living room and kitchen, paused for a second, then said, "Look, Jason."
Oh, not another serious talk.
"It's just that I have to tell you . . ."
Really, you don't.
"I have to tell you, mainly because somebody might say it while you're here. Not that we'll really meet anyone."
My arms shivered. "Okay . . ."
"My mom, your grandma, was never married."
I think I frowned, not really understanding. "Wait. What? What about Walter Huff? Your father?"
"There was no Walter Huff," he said.
I looked at him, shaking my head. What the heck does that mean?
"Grandma's father, your great-grandfather, made him up, he made the name up. He had some documents filed, there were a few newspaper articles, things like that. But Walter Huff wasn't really anyone." Dad said this with a kind of snicker. "Not that I've known for all that long. I only found out after the old man died that he created Walter Huff from nothing. Fracker, the lawyer, told me."
"Dad!" I said, shocked. "So who's your father?"
"I don't know. I don't know," he said, turning away and moving things nervously. "There was no Walter Huff, that's all I know. Having a child, like that, outside of marriage like my mother did, wasn't done. We're talking the early sixties. To be not married and have a child? Uh-uh. When I finally got up the nerve to tell your mother, she thought it was completely fantastic. Not about Grandma not being married, but that this man who I thought was my father was a . . . fiction. Unbelievable, really. From then on, she didn't like it when Mr. Fracker came to see me. She thought he was some kind of sketchy guy, criminal or something. She was never convinced he was even a lawyer, or just a lawyer. I finally told him to leave me alone. It got to be too much for me, too."
"Well, yeah," I said.
"Right. But that's it. That's the story. Your grandma didn't have a husband. I never knew who my father was. There was a made-up name, but nothing else."
"But how can you even do that?" I asked. "Make someone up? How could you not know? Couldn't anybody tell that this guy, Walter Huff, was never around?"
He shrugged. "He didn't have to be for very long. When I was still a baby, he was supposed to have been away on business when he had an accident. So my mother became a widow. It's nutty, but the old man was like that. So they say. He could do that and make it stick. I never met him. He never acknowledged that I was his grandson, of course."
"Make someone up," I said. "That is so bizarre. So that's why Mom always said stuff."
He glanced at the floor, nodding. "It was just one more crazy thing about my mother."
You're telling me! Grandma suddenly seemed stranger than I ever thought she was. What kind of life had she had, anyway? And Dad ? What was his life like?
Dad seemed tired all of a sudden. "So there you are. No murders or mysteries or anything like that. We're talking Florida when I was young. There had to be a husband, and her father made one up. For a little while."
He was talking so much! He never talked like this at home.
So Dad was illegitimate. His mother wasn't married when she had him. I guess I felt a little like Mom did about Grandma flying. Grandma having a baby and not being married is one thing. But that her husband was a . . . phantom? And after so long for some guy to tell you that your father is not your father and is really no one? So nobody knew who my grandfather was? Is?
There were too many questions for me to deal with. Maybe Mom had the right idea. It was too unbelievable. Too strange. Shut it down. Close it off.
"All right, Dad. Thanks for telling me. I'll keep it in mind. Thanks."
He opened his hands and gave me a look as if he expected more. "Do you . . . have any questions or anything?"
My mind was a complete jumble. "I don't think so. I'm good."
I wasn't good. I didn't want to be there. It was so hot. I didn't want to know about anything. So I had a made-up grandfather. So what? I hated the place. I wanted to be back in Boston with the house all to myself.
While my dad moved boxes noisily around, annoyed at me for not asking to know more, I went into the kitchen, checked the refrigerator, and found store-made potato salad, jelly, eggs, and one beer.
It was nice and cool holding the door of the fridge open, until he snapped at me — "Get inside or shut the door!" — and I finally had to close it.
Looking out the screen door, I studied the backyard again. It was a small square, butting up against the backyard of the house on the next street (31st Avenue North? 29th Avenue South?) and alongside two other backyards. A hedge of flowering bushes and a couple of thick, dense, low palm trees shielded it all around from the neighbors, except on the right side, where the hedge was low and looked into the yard next door.
I jerked back from the screen. There was a tiny white-haired woman in the next yard, leaning in over the hedge, staring at a big open flower on our side. She was about a foot away from it and not moving an inch.
"Is she a statue or something?" I whispered over my shoulder.
"Who, the lady?" said my dad, stopping his work.
"She's gawking into our yard and not moving. Like a garden ornament."
He snickered and said her name was "something like Mrs. Keep or Mrs. Keefe." She had been a friend of my grandmother for a long time. "She takes photographs," he said. "She used to work for the city or something."
"I don't get it," I said. "Which is it? Keep or Keefe?"
He snorted a chuckle. "I never heard it right to begin with. Maybe it's Mrs. Keese. Or even Quiche. She helped me a bit, but she can't lift anything, of course. She did go through Grandma's closet and found some important papers." He pointed to a white carton in the living room. "I haven't gotten to them yet."
"So what do you call her?"
"Ma'am," he said.
The lady moved slightly and lifted a small black box up to her face. That's when I saw that what she had been staring at was not the big flower, but a tiny bird. A hummingbird. It had been hovering inside the flower and now emerged, its wings blurring. The lady tensed. I didn't hear the click of the camera, but the next moment she pulled away, and the hummingbird jerked up and off into some other yard. She then stepped backward across her own yard and disappeared into her house.
"You could check the phone book," I said.
"There's gotta be a way to find out what her name actually is."
"Well, it's too late to ask her," he said. "I've been talking to her every day for two weeks. Each time she calls on the phone and says her name, it sounds different. I think it has something to do with whether she has her teeth in or not."
I laughed. "You could look at her mail when she's out."
"You think I didn't try that?" he said, coming up next to me and peering through the screen at her house. "It's not like she gets a lot of mail to begin with, but the moment it comes, she snatches it in. Besides that, she's almost never out. She lives alone and hardly goes anywhere. Meals on Wheels brings her stuff to eat. I tell you, she never leaves."
"That's so bizarre," I said.
He was almost laughing now. "That's St. Petersburg."
- On Sale
- May 1, 2009
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers