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The Kook & I

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Copyright © 2016 by Tara Lynne

Cover Art and Design © 2016 by Brittany Cain

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from the author. [[email protected]]

THE KOOK & I

First Blue Chickadee Books Edition, October 2016

ISBN-10: 153914495X

ISBN-13: 978-1539144953

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, places, or events is coincidental and unintended.

For Twinkle

Contents

Chapter 1 6

Chapter 2 9

Chapter 3 12

Chapter 4 15

Chapter 5 20

Chapter 6 23

Chapter 7 28

Chapter 8 32

Chapter 9 37

Chapter 10 40

Chapter 11 44

Chapter 12 47

Chapter 13 51

Chapter 14 55

Chapter 15 59

Chapter 16 64

Chapter 17 68

Chapter 18 71

Chapter 19 75

Chapter 20 79

Chapter 21 83

Chapter 22 87

Chapter 23 91

Chapter 24 95

Chapter 25 98

Chapter 26 101

Chapter 27 104

Chapter 28 107

Chapter 29 110

Chapter 30 114

Chapter 31 117

Chapter 32 120

Chapter 33 123

Chapter 34 128

Chapter 35 131

Chapter 1

The little red flag on our mailbox is still sticking up, which means the mail lady hasn’t been here yet to deliver the gift my dad promised would arrive from Alaska by today. Normally, Dad isn’t much for promising stuff—“actions speak louder than words,” he’s always saying—but right now, things are different. Right now, he’s four thousand miles away, gutting fish in a cold, wet, smelly seafood-processing plant. And I’m turning thirteen without him.

I move away from the window. A metallic taste hangs on my lips from staring outside for so long with my face pressed to the screen.

I sink back on my bed and study the chipped popcorn ceiling, thinking about how life can change so fast sometimes it makes your head spin.

Example: ten weeks ago, Mom, Dad, and I were shuffling through the security line at Logan Airport with big, goofy smiles on our faces. It was our first trip to Disney World. And my first time flying. The whole thing was a blast, even the army of geckos that invaded our motel room and crept over my face while I slept at night.

Fast-forward ten or eleven days. We’re back in New Hampshire. Mom meets this guy Kip in the Starbucks line. He orders the same drink as her—a vanilla latte, which probably half of everyone in Starbucks is ordering, making the coincidence no big deal.

But Mom and Kip think it’s a big deal. So big that Mom wants a divorce and Dad runs off to Alaska and Kip moves into our house, like he’s always been here and everything is totally normal. I mean, he leaves his tighty-whities bunched up on the bathroom floor.

Dad wears boxers.

I wear boxers.

If Kip lives here long enough, will I start wearing tighty-whities, too?

My head won’t stop spinning.

“Hey, Rip Van Winkle,” says a familiar voice, pulling me out of a deep, dark think-hole. “Wake up.”

I keep staring at the ceiling.

Aurora, my best friend and owner of the voice, plunks down on the bed beside me. The bedsprings creak and moan, but they’re too worn out to bounce back.

Aurora pokes my arm. “You know what today is, right?”

I shrug halfheartedly. “The Fourth of July.”

“And . . . ?”

She wants me to say it’s my birthday. But I don’t want to talk about it—or celebrate it—without Dad. “Independence Day,” I say, a smile twitching at my mouth.

“You’re hopeless,” she proclaims with a sigh. “Here.” She plops a shiny silver box on my stomach. “You’re welcome.”

To humor her, I peel back the foil wrapping. Inside is a package of Boston Baked Beans—the candy-coated peanuts, not the mushy fiber pellets Mom serves whenever we have hotdogs for dinner. I turn the box over in my hands. “Where’d you get these?” I ask. “They’re wicked hard to find.”

Aurora rolls her eyes. “Tell me about it. How’d you get hooked on those things, anyway?”

I explain that my taste for the candy is an oddball family legacy, going back to the Great Depression, when my great-great grandfather survived for a month on Boston Baked Beans and water alone. That’s the legend, anyway. Since then, every Truman male has been addicted to the things.

“Really? You believe that load of—?” Aurora starts to say. But then she gets distracted by a stack of mail on my nightstand. She picks up the pile and starts flipping through it.

“Gimme those,” I say, snatching most of the envelopes away from her.

She’s still got my dad’s latest postcard and some junk mail for the weirdo next door. “Dear Ralph,” she reads from the postcard. “Sorry about taking off and missing your birthday. I know it’s a big one this year.” Her grin slips. I hold my hand out for the postcard, but she keeps reading. “I had to get away and clear my head and figure out what to do next.” Her eyes meet mine. They’re glassy and sad looking. I want to tell her not to worry. That I’ll be fine. But a tight, sticky feeling in my throat stops me from talking.

Instead of finishing the postcard—Dad’s written a bunch of promises about teaching me to hunt and letting me smoke a cigar (one time only) and taking me on a road trip (we’ll hit every diner on the east coast, he says) to the Florida Keys, to fish for blue marlin and king mackerel and every other kind of fish he can still stomach, once he’s done slicing and dicing them in Alaska—Aurora wedges it under my alarm clock and moves on to the neighbor’s mail.

“Are you insane?!” I yelp, when she starts ripping into a preapproved credit card offer.

The neighbor isn’t the sort of guy you want to mess around with. He’s like a ghost. Or a ninja. Or that Boo Radley dude from one of those “literary masterpieces” Aurora won’t quit nagging me to read. (Note: Aurora’s full name is Aurora Louise Fitzgerald. She’s convinced she’s related to “the greatest American author ever to grace the planet,” F. Scott Fitzgerald. So far, proof is lacking.)

My heart is beating a mile a minute; I barely register Kip’s footsteps closing in on us. “Ralph? Buddy?” he’s suddenly saying from the doorway. He doesn’t bother knocking; he just barges into my room.

I jump off the bed and go, “Yeah?”

“Don’t forget to haul that junk out of the garage for the dump guy,” says Kip, a bag of golf clubs hanging off his shoulder. His watery blue eyes pick over Aurora’s wavy black hair. “There’s half a can of paint at the end of the driveway,” he reminds me. “That fence could use another coat. Okay, buddy?”

My gaze connects with Aurora’s. I tell her without words to shut up. Because if history repeats itself, she’s about to say something smart-alecky. And I can’t have her lecturing Kip about working me like poor Tom Sawyer on my birthday.

She gets the message, but it takes all of her willpower—and some actual lip biting—to keep quiet.

“Anything else?” I ask in my best brownnoser voice. I hate myself for kissing up to Kip, but I don’t want to do anything to upset Mom. She’s pretty infatuated with Kip right now.

Kip seizes the opportunity to add a few more tasks to my to-do list, before slapping me on the back and sauntering off. (Kip never walks anywhere; he struts or swaggers or jaunts. Regular walking is beneath him.)

“That guy is so . . . so . . .” says Aurora, shaking her head.

“Creepy?”

“No.” Her face scrunches up. “ ‘Creepy’ is too good for him. He didn’t even wish you a happy birthday!” she squeals. “What on earth could your mother see in that . . . that . . . troll?”

I have a couple of theories about what Mom sees in Kip. First, he’s good-looking. I wish I could say he’s a troll, but he has more in common with a bronze gladiator than anything lurking under a railroad bridge. Sorry. That’s a fact.

Then there’s Kip’s personality. It might sound crazy, but I think Mom likes his bossiness. How he thinks he knows everything and isn’t shy about saying so. That was one big problem with Mom and Dad: neither of them likes making decisions. After what happened to Rachel (she’s my sister who died before I was born, for no reason except what doctors call sudden infant death syndrome), I guess no one can blame them for being afraid of doing the wrong thing.

Kip has no problem deciding things—for himself and everyone else.

I’m still holding the Boston Baked Beans. Aurora taps the box and smiles. “Want some?” I ask.

She pulls a face. “What do you think?”

We each take a handful. Then we wander through the kitchen, popping beans in our mouths and talking about random stuff. We’re about to exit through the garage—maybe I can convince Aurora to help me drag Kip’s old junk to the curb, I’m thinking—when I notice a weird rectangular spot on the wall. At first I can’t figure out what it is; it just looks like a discolored zone of paint or something. But then it hits me: one of Rachel’s pictures is gone.

My stomach starts gurgling, and a prickly sweat breaks out on my neck. I almost don’t dare move, since maybe a crazed maniac has broken into the house and is about to slash me and poor, innocent Aurora to bits. That’s how Rachel’s missing picture makes me feel: panicked to my bones.

Aurora notices my freak-out, but I play it off like I’m just overtired. And she can’t harass me too much, because it’s my birthday.

Chapter 2

Aurora and I spend fifteen minutes getting Kip’s mouse-chewed power bars, his busted old trophies (he was a championship rower in college, I guess), and his shabby tennis whites (the polo shirts and short-shorts are actually a rainbow of gray now) heaped on the front lawn for whoever is supposed to pick them up.

I’m still thinking about Rachel (it’s weird how much brainpower you can spend on a phantom sister you’ve never even met), when Aurora starts messing with the mailbox flag, flicking it up and down and humming Pop! Goes the Weasel. “Knock it off,” I say. “I’m waiting for something.”

Her eyebrows hunch together. “Today?”

I put the flag back up. “Yeah. So.”

“First of all,” she goes, “the flag is for outgoing mail, not incoming. I’m pretty sure that’s a law.”

I shrug. “I was just trying to get the mail lady’s attention.”

“Second of all,” she continues, “it’s a national holiday. Unless you’re President Obama or Santa Claus, there’s no mail.”

How did I not remember that? I must be a moron. The great thing about Aurora is that she won’t rub my nose in it.

“Anyway,” she says, jerking her head toward the crazy neighbor’s yard, “how’s the tree farm growing? Think we’ll be able to harvest one of those babies by Christmas?”

The “tree farm” is a forest of fir trees—Aurora and I have tried counting them, but it’s like an optical illusion; we can never agree on how many there are—that the neighbor had planted around his house by a gang of midnight arborists. One day we woke up and—bam!—the things were there. We could barely see the weirdo’s house anymore.

Freaky.

We’ve actually never seen the weirdo, either, unless you count shadowy glimpses at dawn and dusk. And even then, he’s covered from head to toe in military gear. You’d be lucky to spot a dime-sized patch of skin on his forehead. Which is why Aurora shouldn’t be tampering with the guy’s mail. He’s probably some sort of terrorist or something. We just don’t have the proof to turn him in to the authorities . . . yet.

“Dunno,” I mumble about the Christmas-tree idea. “They’re probably electrified, though. I’d use a rubber ax, if you’re going to—”

“You’re so paranoid,” says Aurora, rolling her eyes. “I was hoping you’d mellow with age.” She gestures at the tree farm. “I mean, what on earth has Johnny”—as soon as the trees went up, Aurora nicknamed the neighbor after Johnny Appleseed, the legendary tree planter—“ever done to you, anyway? I bet he’s a cool, interesting, and, yes, mildly quirky guy. Quirky people make the best characters, don’t you think?”

“You think everyone should be in a book.”

She twirls her hair around her finger and stares at the forest. “Maybe they already are.”

Aurora has a great imagination. Sometimes I swear she can see other worlds unfolding around us. Which is cool, but also sort of eerie. I mean, I don’t want her sucking me into a sinister alternate universe or anything.

I change the subject. “How are your painting skills?” I ask, glancing at the fence.

“Let’s deliver that mail first,” she says, her eyes lifting in a dare. “I mean, you’re thirteen now. If you were Jewish, you’d be a man. If you were from the Sateré-Mawé tribe—they’re indigenous people from the Amazonian rainforest—you’d be wearing gloves made of painful, stinging insects called bullet ants. All the thirteen-year-old boys in the tribe have to—”

If you ask me, Aurora has been reading too many National Geographics. “I’d like to live to see my next birthday,” I say. “Plus, most of that stuff is junk mail. Let’s just drop it back in the mailbox and let the mail lady deal with it.”

“What fun would that be?” she asks over her shoulder, already heading back inside.

I don’t bother trying to stop her; it’s no use. I just grab a flathead screwdriver from Dad’s left-behind toolbox and pry the lid off the paint can. I’m racking my brain over where the paintbrushes could’ve gone—yesterday, two were teetering on the shelf behind the utility sink in the garage, but now they’re MIA—when something flashes between the trees in the neighbor’s yard.

Maybe it was a hummingbird. Or a bat. Or my imagination. . . .

I peer into the forest, my face wrenched with concentration. Suddenly, a pterodactyl-like shriek stabs the air. I’m focusing so hard that I jump sideways and knock over the paint can, splashing the “cotton breeze” paint across my sneaker and the driveway.

Kip is going to kill me. But I can’t worry about that now. Because the weirdest thing is happening: a pale hand is waving at me from behind a tree, inside the kook’s yard.

Is Aurora playing a practical joke?

“Ha-ha,” I say. “Very funny.”

The hand summons me with a twitchy fishhook finger.

“You’re hilarious,” I say. “C’mon. Get back here, before—”

The finger keeps straightening out and curling back up again.

I feel a hot magnetic pull in my gut. I take a step toward the tree. And another. Before I know it, I’m dipping a paint-splattered toe across enemy lines. “C’mon,” I half whisper, half hiss. “If the nutcase catches you—” I reach for the hand, but it retracts like a pinball flipper.

The tree rustles. I can’t see around it, and I don’t dare move, in case the wacko neighbor has a rifle pointed at my forehead. For all I know, there’s a tiny red laser dot between my eyeballs right now.

I’m thinking about abandoning Aurora—if it is Aurora behind the tree—and running for my life, when footsteps scuff across the driveway behind me.

I’d know those feet anywhere. But if Aurora just came out of the garage, then who’s on the other side of that tree?

My throat slams shut.

“You have something of mine,” says a scratchy, disembodied voice. “Give it to me. Now.” When I don’t comply, the voice adds, “It’s a matter of life and death.”

His life or mine?

The hand darts out again.

I inch backward and grab for Aurora, hoping to snag the mail and save us both from certain doom.

Success!

My fingers are fumbly, but I hold on to the mail long enough to slip it into the waiting claw-hand. “Here,” I say, releasing the envelopes like they’re on fire.

The pincer-fingers clamp down, and the mail disappears.

Aurora’s hair twists in the wind. “Go,” I say, shooing her off. If anyone has to die today, it should be me. Even though that would break Mom’s heart, after what happened to baby Rachel.

I’m about to spin around and race for the house, when the neighbor-kook says, “Thanks a lot, kid.” He pulls back a tree branch and hawks me with a muddy gray eye. “And, by the way, happy birthday.”

Aurora and I crash into each other as we flee for the garage. I punch the big red button on the wall and power down the garage door. As it thunks shut, the pterodactyl shrieks again.

Chapter 3

When Kip gets back from golfing, he’s pretty ticked about the paint on the driveway. Then he finds out about his junky old stuff being hauled off and goes purple in the face, like he’s been stung by one of those crazy rainforest ants and is fighting back the urge to scream. (I guess I was supposed to drag a different pile of trash—including Dad’s collection of baseball caps, which he probably still wants—to the curb.)

Even though it’s my birthday, I know I’m in trouble. So I go to my room and wait for whatever is going to happen next. I’m messing around with one of the airplane models Dad and I used to build together, when my bedroom door creaks open.

It’s Mom. She’s finally back from Boston. Back from prepping doctors’ and lawyers’ and professors’ kids for their AP classes and SATs.

According to Kip, tons of rich kids in Boston want to go to Harvard. And their parents are willing to “pay a king’s ransom” to make it happen. At least that’s what Kip told Mom to talk her into quitting her teaching job and “leveraging her credentials to make some real cash.” (Before Rachel was born, Mom went to Harvard herself. She’s an insider, which all those busy doctors and lawyers and professors love.)

Too bad Mom looks like she’s just escaped a chain gang.

She stands in the doorway and sighs. “Not a great day today, huh?” she asks, sounding exhausted.

I shrug. “Sorry. It was a mistake.”

She scoots in next to me on the bed. “Kip’s pretty upset.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I know.” I flick the propeller of the model plane. It makes two full revolutions before grinding to a halt.

“He’d like you to apologize,” she says, patting the back of my hair. “Okay?”

Something tells me that Kip won’t be satisfied, even if I scratch out a confession in blood. “Have you seen Dad’s package?” I ask, ignoring the apology issue. “He said it would be here for my birthday.”

Mom winces, like I’ve jabbed her with a sharp stick. “I haven’t even had time to—”

I think about mentioning Rachel’s missing picture, but Mom seems pretty fried. So I let the idea go. Maybe she took it down to clean it, and it’ll be back in its usual spot next time I cruise by.

Unfortunately, Mom won’t let the apology issue drop. She guilts me into the living room, where Kip is kicked back in Dad’s recliner with his cell phone propped against his ear. He’s rambling on about a nineteenth-century oak ice chest—Kip is an antiques scout/dealer—that the caller “absolutely must have” for the low, low price of $8,200. (I hate to rat anybody out, but I know for a fact that Kip bought that ice chest at a yard sale from a little old lady in Nashua for $50.)

As Mom and I approach, Kip covers the phone. I mumble an apology and glance at Mom. She lets me off the hook with a nod, probably because Kip is on the verge of a big deal and is preoccupied. As we head back down the hall, Mom promises to bake me a belated birthday cake on her day off, which might be next week or next month, depending on how many tutoring sessions she has.

Mom peels away for the bathroom, and I return to my room. Since Dad took off, I keep to myself, so I don’t have to see any uncomfortable stuff going on between Kip and Mom.

I can’t decide what to do—play a video game or watch TV or surf the Internet or even read one of the books Aurora has been piling up in the corner of my room—but it seems like I should do something special for my birthday. Something different. Something memorable.

Too bad there’s nothing special or different or memorable to do in my fishbowl of a room. I was supposed to get Rachel’s old room eventually (Mom and Dad weren’t ready to let me have it, so I was being patient and understanding), but now that Kip has crammed all his overpriced antiques in there, that’s probably never going to happen.

I jimmy open my closet and dig around for my photo album. When I find it under a flaky old paper-mâché volcano, its sadder looking than I remember, with its frayed denim cover and split spine and wobbly permanent-marker handwriting on the front saying: RALPH TRUMAN JR.’S PHOTOS ONLY!!! The word only is underlined six times, like the eight-year-old me was afraid of strangers slipping their memories in with his.

I’m about to open the album and hunt down some pictures of birthdays past (my thirteenth has been a dud, but I’ve had fun birthdays before, like the dinosaur-themed one or the laser-tag one or the one where Dad took me and Aurora and a couple of other kids go-kart racing at Weirs Beach), when . . .

Ping, ping, ping! goes something at my window. It sounds like hail, but the pattern is off. Plus, it’s not thunderstorm-hot-and-muggy outside.

The pinging stops for a few seconds. Then it starts back up again, only more persistent. My curiosity gets the best of me. I push aside the curtains and peer outside.

It’s dusk. I can’t see much, because the floodlight on the garage is busted. But it’s definitely not hailing outside. So what is making that weird—?

Ping, ping, ping!

Great. Someone is firing rocks at my window. If it breaks, Kip will blame me and order Mom to ground me for life.

I shove the screen up and stick my head outside. “Knock it off!” I yell into the hazy nothingness.

A lumpy shadow floats toward me. Ping, ping, ping!

I think about slamming the window shut and running for help (if Dad were here, he’d scare off the lurker for sure), but then . . .

Pterodactyl shriek.

No way. The kooky neighbor is creeping through our yard, chucking rocks and screeching like an extinct flying reptile?

Instead of coming straight for me, the kook shimmies alongside our house and stops a few feet from my window, just out of arm’s reach.

At least he can’t strangle me with his bare hands, I guess.

“What do you want?” I ask in my most menacing voice.

He glances from side to side, like he’s checking if anyone is watching. Then he puts a gloved finger to his mouth area. (Except for those flat gray eyes, his face is covered by a ski mask.) “Shhhhh!!!!!” he hisses. “They’ll hear.”

“Who?”

“I said, shut up.”

I shrug. Even though the dude is a fruit loop, he’s a pretty spooky fruit loop.

He doesn’t say anything for a minute. Maybe two. My pulse is pounding in my ears, and, I swear, I can hear his heart rattling around under all that camouflage.

Finally, he whispers, “Grab a coat. Preferably black. We’re running out of time.”

Chapter 4

“I’m not supposed to leave the house,” I complain, as my feet hit the ground beside the kook’s mud-encrusted combat boots. “I’m in trouble.”

“You ain’t seen trouble yet, kid,” the kook mutters, scanning the darkening sky. He glances at the window. “You left that open? Really?” He snorts in disgust. “Amateur move, kid. Start paying attention”—he taps the side of his head—“or you’ll end up six feet under.”

Great. He was talking about my life being in danger. I should’ve jotted a goodbye note, in case the worst happens.

The neighbor zips his thumb and forefinger across his mouth area and motions for me to trail him into the forest.

I don’t want to go. And neither does my somersaulting stomach. But maybe if I play along, he’ll change his mind about murdering me.

I hold my breath and follow him, hunching over at just the right angle to stay in his murky shadow. If someone—like Mom or the nosy old guy that lives behind us—happens to look outside, they’ll probably think the kook and I are a fuzzy, bloated bear.

Maybe the old guy will shoot us now and get it over with, I’m thinking. But then the forest closes around us, and even an expert marksman like Billy the Kid doesn’t have a prayer of knocking us off.

As we snake between the trees, I sense something shifty under my feet, like the earth might open up and swallow us whole. “Where are we going?” I work up the nerve to ask. “Because people will be wondering.”

By “people” I mean Mom. Kip probably wishes I’d disappear, anyway. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s hired the kook to take me out.

The kook makes an impatient hissing sound and plows ahead, toward what looks like a barn, though I can’t be sure from my jigsaw-puzzle view through the trees. “Your mother will be in the bath for the next thirty-two minutes,” he states, like he’s reading facts off Wikipedia. “Then she’ll be handling emails for an hour and eight minutes, give or take two minutes and forty seconds. Which leaves us, at minimum, one hour, thirty-seven minutes, and twenty seconds to complete our task.” He gasps for breath, probably from the restricted airflow through the mask. And also because he’s a windbag. “Assuming you drive within two miles per hour of the speed limit and dig with the athleticism of a scrawny ten-year-old”—he sizes me up and looks skeptical—“we’ll have just enough time.”

“Drive? Me?” The guy is even more delusional than I thought.

“Enough of the dramatics,” he spits. The barn door, which we’re now in front of, springs open. “A trained orangutan could operate a motor vehicle. You’re as smart as an orangutan, aren’t you?”

I want to say something like “Duh,” but my voice is paralyzed by (1) bone-deep terror (death by twisted automobile wreckage is at the bottom of my birthday wish list) and (2) shock and awe (inside the kook’s barn is a mad-scientist’s laboratory, with gizmos and contraptions and pulleys and levers and conveyor belts and beakers of colored liquids and cylinders of gas with explosion warnings stamped all over them and—weirdest of the weird—some giant feathers that look like they came off a velociraptor).

Maybe the kook is trying to clone a dinosaur and sic it on the neighborhood, like Godzilla in Tokyo. . . .

The kook hurries inside. I stay on his tail, until he stops beside a big metal crank. “A little help, kid?” he says, tipping his head toward the crank. “I’m pretty good one-handed, but not very fast.”

“What’s wrong with your hand?”

“It’s a limp biscuit. Whole arm, actually.”

I start turning the crank. A bunch of gears and pulleys jump to life. “From what?”

“Less talking, more muscle,” grumbles the kook.

I think about asking what I’m cranking for, but soon it’s obvious.

Forget Godzilla. Maybe we’re in a James Bond movie instead. Because the shiny metal floor of the barn is cracking open like an eggshell—only neater, along connected seams.

I glance at my feet. Whew! The kook and I are standing on solid concrete.

My cranking must’ve slowed down, because the kook is churning his arm through the air, trying to speed me up.

The metal plates fold underground, and a squeaky rubbing sound gets louder and louder. Slowly—too slowly for the kook, by the way he’s shifting around on his feet and breathing hard—a vehicle erupts through the gaping hole. From its Hollywood entrance, I’m expecting something like the time-traveling car from Back to the Future. But there are no winged doors or rocket boosters or blazing trails of fire. There’s just a boring silver Toyota Camry, exactly like the one Mom used to have until Kip told her to sell it and ride her bike to the train station instead. I wonder how she’s going to get to work in the winter.

The kook’s shark-gray eyes smile. “You overshot the landing,” he says, grabbing the crank and leveling the car with the concrete. He glances at a jumbo LED clock. Fractions of a second are whizzing by, like on those stopwatch clocks at the Olympics. “Let’s go,” says the kook, his eyes frowning.

We argue back and forth about who’s going to drive. He says it’s me, because of his lazy arm. I say it’s him, because I’ll probably send us zooming off a bridge or something. Plus, I don’t know where we’re going or what we’re going to do when we get there.

I end up behind the wheel.

The kook gets in the backseat, right behind me, like he’s hijacking the Camry with a gun to my head, which people might think he is if he doesn’t take off that mask pretty soon. Then again, it’s about dark outside, so maybe no one will notice.

I hold the key down too long, and the car makes a horrible grinding sound. But it starts anyway.

The kook doesn’t go over the rules of the road. He just reaches between the seats, taps the shifter, and tells me to “pop it in gear and goose the gas,” because we’re running late.

Late for what? He still won’t tell me. But it involves digging, right? I think that’s what he said.

I drive us into the street, right in front of my house. Silently, I thank Dad for the go-kart-racing practice, since it’s the only thing that might save me from committing vehicular suicide. I mean, driving a go-kart isn’t that different from driving a car, when you think about it.

Except for traffic. Holiday traffic, especially, which is hectic and unpredictable and makes me want to throw up a gutful of Boston Baked Beans.

“Are we almost there?” I ask in a tight voice, my fingers pale and tingly from gripping the steering wheel so hard.

“Take a right!” the kook spouts in my ear. “Right here!”

It’s too late to make the turn, but I twist the wheel anyway, almost wiping out a minivan in the oncoming lane. “Shoot,” I mutter. “That was a close one.”

“Slow down,” responds the kook. “This place is crawling with cops.”

It is? I’m concentrating so hard on keeping the car between the lines that I don’t notice much else, including the police or the speed limit.

I ease up on the gas.

The kook keeps directing me—a left, a left, a left, a left—until we’re cruising back by Donatello’s Pizza, where we started making all those crazy lefts in the first place. “We might be lost,” I say.

“Evasive maneuver,” mumbles the kook.

If I dared move, I’d shrug. But I’m afraid of crashing into the people crisscrossing the street with their coolers and lawn chairs and glow sticks, searching for the best spot to watch the fireworks.

We’re almost through the human Frogger challenge, when I notice Aurora on the side of the road. She’s standing under a spotlight, with the beam reflecting off her shiny blue-black hair. Without looking, she steps into the street, right in front of the Camry.

Time freezes. I can’t hear, and I feel like I’m drifting through space like a flyaway balloon. But somehow I manage to stomp on the brake.

Too late. The Camry’s bumper clips Aurora and knocks her down.

“You’ve done it now!” squeals the kook. He reaches between the seats and shifts the car out of gear. “Go on! Get out! Help her, before anyone sees!”

My heart is jittering. I have trouble undoing the seatbelt. Finally, I get it off and jump out into the road.

Aurora is picking herself up off the ground, looking dazed. “Are you okay?” I ask. She’s a little scuffed up but, other than that, totally normal. Maybe even better than normal, with her hair all wild and crazy like a supermodel’s.

Her eyebrows pucker. “Ralph?”

A stream of headlights closes in on us from behind. “Come on,” I say, brushing some gravel off her arm. “Get in.” I steer her toward the car and open the door. Luckily, she’s too stunned to argue.

I hop back into the driver’s seat. In the nick of time, we get going again. Traffic doesn’t even have to slow down.

Other than the fact that I’ve just rammed a deadly weapon into my best friend, I might be pretty good at this driving thing. That’s what I’m thinking, anyway, until . . .

“You’re driving?” asks Aurora, sounding like a cockroach has crawled into her Lucky Charms. “Why are you driving?” She hunches over and rubs her leg, where the Camry must’ve bashed her. “Whose car is this? You didn’t steal this car, did you? Please tell me you didn’t steal this car and then HIT ME WITH IT!”

I point my eyeballs at the kook, but Aurora doesn’t notice. Actually, I don’t think she’s seen him at all.

But then: “The automobile is mine,” proclaims the kook’s muffled voice. “Take the next right, kid. T-minus one minute to our destination. And apologize to the lady for striking her.”

I have to give Aurora credit; she doesn’t even flinch. I mean, most people would react to the sight of a masked lunatic. But she must recognize the kook—or at least his camouflage outfit. “Sorry,” I say. “Are you hurt? You don’t look—”

She cuts me off with a snort, which means she’s fine. Before either of us says anything else, the kook orders me to pull into an abandoned, weed-eaten parking lot. From what I can read of a faded, tilting sign, there used to be a dry cleaning business here. The only thing left now is a crumbling foundation and a swimming-pool-sized hole in the ground, with pockets of murky mosquito water.

We’re out of the car for less than a second, before the bloodsuckers come for us. Of course, the kook doesn’t have to worry, because he’s covered from head to toe. But Aurora is wearing a flowy tank top and a skimpy pair of jean shorts. “Here,” I say, shrugging out of my coat and hanging it over her shoulders. “Take this.”

She cocks her head and purses her lips, like she’s going to lecture me on sexism. (She hates fairytales—especially Cinderella—for how they “objectify women” and “reinforce the patriarchal social order.” Don’t ask me what that means. I just know she likes to be independent. And treated equal to boys.)

The mosquitoes are as thick as molasses, so Aurora can’t lecture me about anything; she’s too busy swatting her ears and ankles and everything in between. Meanwhile, the kook has popped open the trunk and retrieved a pointy-tipped shovel. He thrusts it at my chest and says, “Follow me.”

The kook might have a lame arm, but his legs sure work good. We practically have to run to keep up with him. “Where are we going?” Aurora asks between huffy breaths. “I can’t see a thing.”

She’s right. Darkness has dropped over us like a winter blanket. And now the fireworks are starting in the distance.

At the back of the lot, we trudge into the woods, with the kook leading the way. Aurora stumbles along behind him, and I’m in last place, dragging the shovel. I can’t tell if the blade is marking the ground, but if we end up lost, a faint trail will be better than nothing.

Something tells me we’re not lost, though. We’re right where the kook wants us: slipping into a deserted graveyard. And he’s stuck me with the dirty work.

Chapter 5

At first I think the kook is going to make me dig my own grave. And Aurora’s, since I’ve dragged her into the middle of . . . well, whatever this is.

But after shining a flashlight on a bunch of tombstones, the kook stops and says, “Here.” He fishtails the beam around on the ground. “Get to work.”

He wants me to unearth some poor dead dude? I squint at the tombstone for a name: Sergeant John Jay Wallace ~ Operation Desert Storm. “Um,” I say. “What?”

“We’re not grave robbers!” spouts Aurora.

The kook shushes her. “It’s of the utmost importance,” he says, fireworks booming in the distance. “Without this, I could die. We could all die.”

I’m standing there frozen, balancing the shovel on my sneaker and willing the mosquitoes off my neck. But they keep jabbing their needle-noses into my skin, like they’re tapping a tree for syrup.

“What are you, some kind of witch doctor?” says Aurora.

The kook doesn’t answer. He just grabs the shovel and starts chipping away at the grass. But with only one good arm, he’s getting nowhere fast. It’s sad, actually, how he’s huffing and puffing and the earth is just laughing at him.

After a minute or two, I start worrying that he’ll keel over of a heart attack, and Aurora and I will be accomplices in his death. Then the cops will haul us off to some cold, filthy juvenile-delinquents’ prison, where the guards are fat and sweaty and carry heavy, skull-crushing nightsticks and only have a few rotten teeth.

“Isn’t this illegal?” I say, trying to reason with the kook, when I should probably just let him burn himself out. I mean, there’s no way he’s digging up this grave alone, with that dead fish of an arm.

“Illegal?” The kook snorts. “Don’t you know anything about capitalism? Have all those iThings and glowing screens cooked your brain?”

Aurora’s hands fly to her hips. “What’s capitalism got to do with anything?” she demands. I guess she’s losing her patience, which makes sense, considering how she’s been clipped by a car and hijacked by a masked kook and eaten half alive by mosquitoes.

“When you buy something, it’s yours,” says the kook. “Don’t they teach you anything in that brainwashing propaganda machine they call a school?”

Maybe the kook is right about school being useless, because I can’t follow a thing he’s saying. “Um . . .”

“You mean,” says Aurora, “that you own this plot? That this is your . . . ?”

“My grave. Yes,” says the kook exasperatedly. “Aren’t you listening to a word I say? I should’ve known better than to trust two—”

My mind is numb. “Your grave, because, like, you paid for it?” I ask. “Or your grave, because you’re supposed to be”—gulp—“buried here?”

Maybe the kook is trying to steal John Jay Wallace’s DNA to keep himself alive, like some sort of semihuman parasite.

Goose bumps rise on my skin, like a million tiny volcanoes.

Aurora steps closer to me. “But he’s dead,” she says about the sergeant. “He died in 1994. It says so right there.” She points a shaky finger at the tombstone. “So how can the grave belong to you?”

The kook stops nicking the ground (so far, he’s only carved a tiny dent in the grave) and holds the shovel out to me. “Help me, kid, and I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

Aurora and I lock eyes. Her shoulders rise in sync with mine. What’s a little grave robbing, if it gets us the kook’s deepest, darkest secrets? I just hope he doesn’t spill our guts, once he’s done spilling his.

It’s a chance we’ve got to take.

The fireworks are still crackling. And the mosquitoes probably won’t quit sucking our blood, even if a truckload of bug repellent tips over on us right now.

I stab at the grass, twisting the shovel with all my strength, scooping up clods of dirt and dropping them in a heap between the kook and me.

Aurora must’ve gone mute, because she hasn’t asked the kook a single question since he gave us the green light. (I’m pretty sure Aurora should be an investigative journalist when she grows up, not “the second greatest American author ever to grace the planet,” after her unlikely ancestor, F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

“Okay, first question,” I say to break the ice. “What’s your name?”

The kook’s pupils expand, which seems unnatural in this kind of light. “Can’t you read, kid?” His chin juts at the tombstone. “It’s right there, carved in granite.”

“You’re Sergeant John Jay Wallace?” I ask doubtfully.

“Used to be.”

I’m making some headway with the digging, which gives me a stomachache. Because I really don’t want to shovel up a corpse. “So your name’s John?” I ask, even though it’s ridiculous. I mean, the sergeant is clearly dead. In a few minutes, I’ll have bone-solid proof.

“Not anymore.”

Aurora is doing a wiggling antimosquito dance. Or else she has to pee. “You can’t be someone one day and not be them the next,” she says. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“It doesn’t have to make sense,” claims the kook. Then he asks me, “Can’t you dig any faster?”

I want to point out that I’m fifty times faster than him, but I keep my mouth shut.

“What should we call you, then?” asks Aurora, giving up on getting a straight answer.

“You know who John Jay was, don’t you?”

“I thought you weren’t John Jay anymore,” Aurora says with a huff.

The kook explains that his 6th great-grandfather on his mother’s side was named John Jay, too. He was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, the second governor of New York, and an important person in ending slavery.

Really? The kook is related to a prominent historical figure? Someone that was brave and strong enough to defy the British and help create a whole new country, the United States of America?

I doubt it. But the kook’s not done making up ridiculous stuff yet. . . .

He also says that his 22nd great-grandfather on his father’s side was the Scottish knight and patriot Sir William Wallace, who fought for Scotland’s independence from England back in the Middle Ages. After winning a major battle and ruling Scotland for a while, Sir William Wallace was captured by King Edward I (the first) and hanged.

“So, you see my problem,” says the kook.

The only problem I see is the kook’s fantastic imagination. But then the shovel hits something hollow sounding, and I forget the kook’s wild stories altogether.

“What is it?” asks Aurora, leaning over the hole, which can’t be more than a foot deep. Definitely not deep enough for a body or a casket.

The kook drops to his knees and digs around with his good hand. “Yes, yes!” he howls. “You’ve found it! Now help me get it out!”

I stab the ground a few more times, while the kook lights up the hole with his flashlight. Soon it’s clear that I’m unearthing some kind of trunk or footlocker, like the ones they use in the military or the one Dad has for his old college stuff.

Hmm . . .

The fireworks are erupting like a bag of microwave popcorn. “C’mon,” says the kook, “we’ve got to get out of here before—”

I ditch the shovel. The three of us huddle around the grave, scooping the last chunks of dirt out by hand and then slowly (the corners of the trunk keep hanging up on rocks and roots and stuff) raising the thing from the dead.

We’ve just plunked the trunk down on the next guy’s grave, when the kook says, “Kid, fill that back in.” (He means the hole.) “And you.” (He means Aurora.) “Grab that handle.” (He means the one on her side of the trunk.) “And help me get this to the car.”

Chapter 6

I don’t see Aurora for the rest of the weekend. But then on Monday, she shows back up again, wearing flowered pants instead of shorts, even though it’s hotter outside today than it was on my birthday.

“How’s your leg?” I ask. She’s probably covering up a nasty bruise or a swollen, lumpy knot. And I feel like a jerk for hitting her with the Camry.

“Eh, it’s fine,” she claims. But her voice wavers, and I don’t believe her.

She eases in beside me on the picnic table, facing the kook’s yard. In the last day and a half, I’ve spent seven or eight hours staring into the forest, waiting for something—I’m not sure what—to happen. “Any action?” she asks.

“Nope.”

“We’ve gotta find out what’s in that trunk.”

“Forget it,” I say, even though I’m dying to know what the kook is up to, too. But I don’t want Aurora putting herself in danger. “It’s probably just old newspapers or dirty socks or something.”

She pulls a face. “He said it would save his life. That it would save everyone. I don’t think it’s newspapers or socks.”

“Save us from what?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “Is there, like, a natural disaster predicted?”

“We live in New Hampshire,” I say.

“Maybe it’s a tidal wave. If the right—or, well, the wrong—kind of earthquake hits underwater, we’re toast.”

“Awesome.”

“Do you think it’s a tidal wave?”

“How would the kook know about a tidal wave coming?” I ask. But then I remember all the scientific gadgets in his barn and think that if anyone has inside information, it’s him.

“The kook?” Aurora says, sounding offended.

I dig at a cluster of mosquito bites on my arm and shrug.

“The man’s name is John,” she says.

Usually, Aurora accuses me of being gullible. “You believe all that stuff about him being descended from the Founding Fathers and a Scottish knight?” The idea is so ridiculous that when I hear myself saying it, I almost burst out laughing.

“Why not? Anything’s possible.”

She must want to believe the kook, because it makes her hopeful about being related to her idol, F. Scott Fitzgerald. “I guess.”

We go quiet for a while. I’m thinking about what’s in that mysterious trunk and why it was hidden in a graveyard and how the kook—I mean, John—is walking around as lively as anyone, except for a lame arm, when that tombstone says he died twenty years ago.

Nothing makes sense.

“Did you check your mail?” Aurora asks from nowhere.

“No.”

“I saw Frenchie on my way over here.”

“Who’s Frenchie?”

“The letter carrier.” She rolls her eyes. “You were waiting for something, weren’t you?”

We wander around the house, toward the mailbox. As we cross the paint-splashed driveway, Kip’s shiny black SUV rolls up the street.

Great. I was already iffy about checking the mail with Aurora by my side, in case Dad’s present is personal. I definitely don’t want Kip lurking around, waiting to make fun of the gift or take it away from me.

I grab Aurora’s arm and steer us down the street, in the direction of our regular hangout, which includes the library, a railroad-car diner called The Terminal, and Aurora’s mom’s thrift shop, where Kip has “discovered” thousands of dollars’ worth of profitable antiques.

Speaking of Kip, he’s slowing down beside us instead of coasting into the driveway. I morph into a speed walker, dragging Aurora along behind me and pretending not to see Kip. If I don’t make eye contact with him, he can’t prove I’m ignoring him.

“Ouch!” whines Aurora. She tries to pull away, but I’m squeezing too hard.

Kip plays chicken with us for a few seconds, slowing down as we speed up and vice versa. When his window starts buzzing down (he’s got some kind of movie-star tint on the glass), I dart sideways into the tree farm.

Aurora almost falls over and wrecks her new pants. “Sheesh!” she spouts, finally breaking free. “What’s your problem?” She gawks around, stunned, like Dorothy in Oz or Alice in Wonderland. She’s never been in the kook’s yard before. And it really is jaw-dropping, with all those fuzzy green branches coming at you in every direction, like they’re trying to hug you or eat you.

I listen for Kip.

Silence.

“Do you think he’s gone?” I ask.

“John?”

“No,” I say. “Kip.”

“Um, maybe. Who cares?”

I can’t decide whether to backtrack into the street or risk the kook’s wrath by winding through the tree farm to the Chadwicks’ (they’re the kook’s neighbors on the other side) yard. When I tell this to Aurora, she says, “ ‘The best way out is always through.’ That’s in a Robert Frost poem, you know.”

“What about a tornado?” I say. “Wouldn’t it be better to go around a tornado than through one?”

“Not necessarily,” she replies. “The eye of a tornado is completely harmless.”

I know what she means about the eyes of storms being empty and still and not very threatening. “But you’d have to get into the eye first,” I say. “And you’d be dead by then, I’m pretty sure.”

Aurora cocks her head. “We’re not in a tornado, though, Ralph, are we?”

I hear Kip’s SUV crunching along the side of the road and decide that taking our chances with the kook is the lesser of two evils. Plus, we’ll be through the forest—and out of the storm—in a few minutes.

Easy.

“Let me—” I say, slipping in front of her and leading the way. We pick through the maze a tree at a time, relying on my memory to guide us. But after five minutes, we’ve made a bunch of overlapping figure-eights and gotten nowhere.

“I thought you knew the way,” complains Aurora. “Shouldn’t we be there already?”

The kook must’ve done some “evasive maneuvers” last time we were in the forest. Which means I have no idea how to get out of here. “Be my guest,” I say, stepping aside to clear the way. Maybe Aurora’s sense of direction is better than mine.

Scratch that. Her sense of direction is definitely better than mine. In fact, she might be part bloodhound. “Ooh, what’s this?” she asks, when we pop out of the forest by the kook’s barn. In the daylight, I can see the kook’s house, which is stumpy and rundown looking, with tons of solar panels on the roof.

The kook is an environmentalist? I guess it makes sense, in a weird, unexplainable sort of way.

Aurora heads for the barn.

“I wouldn’t”—I mean, get any closer to the kook’s place—“if I were you,” I say. “Let’s just get out of here.”

We’ve escaped one encounter with the kook already. I’m afraid we’ve used up all our luck. Even with a limp arm, he could put an end to both of us. And we still don’t know what’s in that mysterious graveyard trunk. Or who the kook really is, since I doubt he’s a dead war hero from twenty years ago. Chances are, he’s hiding something gruesome.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you just turn thirteen?” Aurora asks. “’Cause you seem kind of—” She leaves the sentence hanging, because something has caught her—and now my—eye: the kook’s front door has cracked open.

Or maybe it was already open, and we just didn’t notice.

Aurora marches up the crumbly steps and pokes her head inside. “Hello?” she sings. “Is anyone home?”

“What are you doing?” I hiss, keeping my distance. I scan the yard (there’s an eight-foot moat of lawn between the house and the trees) for signs of movement.

Negative.

I tiptoe up behind Aurora. I’m about to grab her shirt and drag her away, when she shoves the door open and charges inside.

I pray there isn’t a row of motion-sensing machineguns pointed at the doorway, waiting to slaughter us.

Negative again.

What might kill us instead is the musty, ancient smell (it’s like a cross between the locker room at school and my grandparents’ attic) swallowing us as we navigate around piles of books and magazines and newspapers—especially newspapers—looking for . . .

“I don’t think he’s here,” says Aurora, her eyes sparkling with mischief. She lifts a couple of newspapers off a neck-high stack and flips through them. “Look,” she says, waving one of the papers around and stirring up a major dust cloud, “this says ‘Deutschland’ on it, right under the little picture of the Pope. I think that means German—or Germany. It looks like it’s written in German, doesn’t it?”

I skim the page. “If German is a bunch of smashed-together consonants and vowels with dots over them like Morse code, then, yeah. Definitely German.” I can’t stop staring at the title of the newspaper, which is Die Zeit.

What if Zeit means Ralph in German?

Aurora keeps poking around, unearthing newspapers and magazines from Canada, Russia, Japan, Venezuela, Egypt, Australia, Turkey. Every one is covered in handwritten notes and underlining and exclamation points galore.

I’m impressed—I mean, the kook must know eight languages, at least—and freaked out at the same time. More freaked out than impressed, though.

Not Aurora. “This is so . . . interesting,” she says, in a dreamy voice.

I snap my fingers to unmesmerize her, but it doesn’t work. “He’s gonna catch us,” I say, trying to spook her back to reality. But she keeps strolling through the living room—or what might be the living room, since there’s no TV and it’s hard to tell if a couch is drowning under all these brittle, yellow mounds of paper.

I sure hope the kook isn’t a smoker. A stray ash would send this place up in flames.

Aurora has zeroed in on a hardcover Latin-English dictionary that looks like it has survived the apocalypse. She’s combing through it and testing out phrases—magnus frater spectat te; omnia autem animalia sunt aequales—when I squeeze by her (the paths through the kook’s house are only a person and a half wide), spin around, and grab her shoulders. “What are you doing? We have to get out of here before . . . before . . .”

She wedges the dictionary back into place. “Calm down.”

I think I’ve convinced her to leave before something horrible—and probably painful (the contraptions in the kook’s barn would make great medieval torture devices, I have a bad feeling)—happens, when she does something unbelievable.

And suicidal.

And homicidal, since the kook will have to wipe both of us off the map to avoid leaving any witnesses.

My jaw is hanging open, but I can’t muster a word. Or even a sound, which would be some sort of spastic wailing, if I had it in me.

But I don’t. Not now. Not with my body frozen and my nervous system on red alert.

With a smirk and a happy little push, she’s tipped over the kook’s tallest stack of literature. She left the dictionary alone, though. I guess she’s developed fuzzy feelings for that.

“Be a dear and clean this up,” she says, motioning at the scattered mess. “I’m off to find that trunk.” She boldly steps past me. As I bend down, she disappears around the corner.

I cobble the paper mountain back together with my heart beating in my throat. Then I go after her, because I can’t let her get swallowed by a python—or whatever else might be lurking in the kook’s supersecret hideout—without slicing its belly open and wrestling her free.

If only I had a knife.

The kook’s kitchen isn’t much help in the knife department; it’s basically an empty mirrored box (the floor, the walls, and even the ceiling are lined with stainless steel), except for a refrigerator-sized machine (for the record, there’s no actual refrigerator) called THE IRRADIATOR.

What does the kook eat, if there’s no refrigerator?

Maybe he doesn’t eat—food, anyway. He could be a vampire. Or a zombie. Or an evil robot sent from the future to destroy us.

“Ralph! Ralph!” Aurora is suddenly squealing. “Come here!”

Under the bed. That’s where the kook has stashed his resurrected footlocker. It’s such an obvious place that it must be a trick. “Don’t touch that,” I say. “It might be—”

“Too late,” says Aurora, giving the handle a tug. But the trunk is stuck. “Here. Pull this,” she says, turning the handle over to me. “I’ll kick it from the other side.” She crawls around the bed, jams herself underneath, and starts whacking the trunk with her foot.

Whomp. Whomp. Whomp.

I’m pulling on the handle, but the trunk isn’t going anywhere. But then, all of a sudden, something gives and—whoosh!—the thing jumps across the floor, sending me into a tailspin.

Aurora makes a grunting sound, like the wind has been knocked out of her.

“Are you okay?” I ask, picking myself up off the ground.

She shimmies out from under the bed. Her pants are a giant dust bunny. “Yeah, yeah,” she says, her eyes darting around the kook’s bedroom. (The place is actually normal, with matching furniture, an old-fashioned alarm clock on the nightstand, and regular blue curtains instead of the transparent aluminum-foil stuff stuck to the windows in the rest of the house.) “Let’s go.”

I’m so relieved to escape that I don’t argue about stealing the kook’s trunk. I just grab one side and Aurora grabs the other and soon we’re hobbling down the steps and winding through the trees and prowling like hungry cats through the Chadwicks’ yard.

Chapter 7

Somehow we’ve managed to make it all the way to Aurora’s mom’s thrift shop without raising anyone’s suspicions about the stolen trunk. But we can’t exactly waltz through the front door with the thing.

“What’s the plan?” I ask, adjusting my grip. “Where are we putting this?” We’ve agreed that neither of us should stash the trunk at home, in case something dangerous or illegal is inside. (We still don’t know what’s inside, since there’s a padlock on the trunk. Until we find the key—or swipe a pair of bolt cutters—we’ll have to keep wondering.)

Aurora squints. “What time is it?”

“One o’clock?” I say, guessing based on Kip’s lunchtime appearance.

“Good,” says Aurora. “My mom will be on the sales floor. She’s got no one to cover between noon and three-fifteen.”

We spy on the shop until we’re sure Mrs. Fitzgerald is busy. Then we sneak in a side door and weave lopsidedly down the hall to the storage room. It’s stale and hot and claustrophobic. Useless old stuff is sprouting up everywhere. Aurora and I and the trunk barely fit inside. “We’re going to have to rearrange some things,” says Aurora, “to hide this properly.”

Beads of sweat crawl down my back. “Yeah, okay,” I say. “Just tell me what to do.”

Aurora happily bosses me around, while we clear a path to the back of the room. We stand the trunk on its head and slip it behind an oversized dresser.

Once the trunk is hidden, I figure we should leave, to keep things under the radar. But Aurora wants to say hi to her mom. She says no one will put two and two together, even if they find the kook’s secret graveyard trunk.

Reluctantly, I agree.

The shop is even busier than it looked from the street. Aurora’s mom is banging away at an old cash register, which clicks and clacks and dings like the starting bell at a horserace. Her eyeglasses are skiing down her nose, and her hair is spiraling out of a colorful headscarf.

“Be right back,” says Aurora, dancing over to the checkout counter.

I browse a shelf of rusty old tools. There’s a handsaw and a garden spade and a boxful of crescent wrenches. But no bolt cutters. Maybe we could jimmy the trunk open with a pry bar, I’m thinking, when: “Need help finding something, kid?” asks a vaguely familiar voice.

“Just looking,” I say, without turning around. But then the stranger steps beside me and starts examining a chisel, and my eyes can’t help themselves.

The guy is about my dad’s age, with slicked-back sandy brown hair and eyes the color of algae. He’s carrying a shopping bag from a vitamin store and wearing a plaid, pastel-colored, button-down shirt.

He must be a tourist. Or a lawyer. Most of the locals (except Kip) are working people. They wear T-shirts and cargo shorts and buy their vitamins (actually, I doubt anyone in Great Swan takes vitamins) at Walmart.

“What do you think?” the guy asks, holding up the chisel.

I shrug. “Looks okay.”

The guy smirks. “Sold.”

I move to the next aisle, which is full of half-deflated basketballs and chipped hockey sticks and elbow pads that don’t match.

The lawyer dude follows me. “Hot enough out for you, kid?” he asks, sizing up one of the hockey sticks.

I scan the shop for Aurora, who’s helping her mother behind the counter. “I guess,” I mumble, hoping the guy takes the hint and buzzes off.

He doesn’t.

I head for the housewares section and pretend to be interested in a drinking glass with a picture of an owl on it. I’m tipping it upside down and spinning it around like I’m checking for cracks; meanwhile, the lawyer-pest loiters a foot away, staring at me.

Maybe I should call the cops and report him as a pervert.

Before I get the chance, the shop door chimes and Kip strides in. “Great,” I mutter under my breath.

The lawyer-pest says, “Hmm?”

“Nothing.”

Kip hasn’t spotted me yet—he’s made a beeline for the jewelry case—and I want to keep it that way. So I wait until his nose is pressed up against the glass, studying a turquoise bracelet or some other sparkly thing, and duck outside, leaving the lawyer-pest—and Aurora—in the dust.

  1. # #

The mailbox is empty when I get home, which makes my guts twist. Because even though Dad’s gift is probably no big deal (Mom says he can’t get anything good in Alaska, since it’s so far from civilization), I was looking forward to it more than usual. More than I’ve looked forward to anything Mom or Dad has ever given me before. Because somehow the gift proves that Dad and I are still connected. That he’s still part of my life, even though he’s thousands of miles away and Kip has taken over his easy chair and his closet and his wife.

I’m distracted thinking about Dad, when I wander past Mom’s bike. It’s parked neatly at the edge of the driveway. It shouldn’t be here at this time of day, unless a bunch of her tutoring students cancelled, which has been happening a lot since she ditched her teaching job and became an “educational entrepreneur.” (Kip’s words.) At least she still gets paid if they cancel, though. Kip had her write a contract saying so. And she won’t help any of those doctors’ or lawyers’ or professors’ kids unless their parents sign it.

Mom is in the kitchen, listening to country music on the radio and going over papers at the table. She must’ve assigned essays—college admissions essays, I’m guessing—because her red pen is out. Which means some poor kid’s heart is getting ripped apart on the page. (Mom is a pushover in most ways. But if you disrespect the English language, she’ll murder you.)

I can’t help noticing that the house feels calm without Kip. So calm that I almost expect Dad to come cruising down the hall.

He doesn’t.

Mom must be deep in thought. She barely looks up when I grab a bottle of water from the refrigerator. She just says, “Don’t spoil your appetite. We’re going out for dinner.”

Maybe that’s why she’s home early. Not because of the rich kids dumping her. “Where?”

“Angel’s Landing.”

“The fancy place on the water?” I ask. If it’s the place I’m thinking of, Mom, Dad, and I tried going there once. But we never got past the framed menu on the building. They wanted $39 for a hamburger. We left, laughing at how dumb you’d have to be to pay $39 for something you can make at home for two bucks.

I guess we’re the dumb ones now.

“That’s the one,” says Mom. “Make sure you put on some decent clothes. Kip will be back in an hour.”

“Did we get any mail today?”

Mom gestures at the counter. “Bills, mostly.”

I check the mail basket, even though there’s no package in sight. Turns out there’s another postcard from Dad, though. He’s complaining about some guy in the bunkhouse named Elmo that stole his waterproof boots. He’s also asking if I liked my birthday present.

My brain shrugs. I mean, I wish I knew.

I’m on my way to my room to write Dad back (maybe I’ll lie and say his gift was awesome), when I notice another bare spot on the wall. Now Rachel’s first—and only—Christmas picture is gone.

I double back to the kitchen. “Hey, Mom,” I say.

“Hmm?” She’s still focused on those papers like a pit bull on a T-bone.

“What happened to Rachel’s pictures?”

She puts down the pen and turns to face me. “Oh,” she says, “I meant to tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

“Kip thought it was time to—” She sighs. “He says I’m stuck in the past. Stuck in a pattern of—”

“How would he know?” I blurt. “He’s only been here for a few weeks.”

Mom hangs her head. “C’mon, Ralph. Don’t give me a hard time, okay?” She waits for me to agree, but I just grit my teeth and stare at her. “It’s time to move forward. That’s all. Putting away the pictures is just part of that process.”

I want to say it’s convenient that, after fifteen years, Mom is suddenly ready to move on, just because Kip told her to. But instead, I go: “If you say so.”

“I do,” Mom replies, like the case is closed. Like I should be quiet and leave her alone and maybe even disappear like baby Rachel.

Message received.

Chapter 8

Like I said, nobody in Great Swan owns expensive, fancy clothes. And that includes me. So I put on a pair of unripped jeans and the black polo shirt I wore to Great-Aunt Bernie’s funeral.

Then I sit down at my desk with Dad’s postcard. I reread it a couple of times, trying to find a clue to what the missing gift might be. But Dad’s only given me a few smudgy sentences to go by (he could use some waterproof ink, but Elmo the lowlife would probably swipe that, too), and they’re pretty basic. Reading between the lines gets me nowhere.

I wiggle open my desk drawer and flip through the stack of New Hampshire postcards I got at the drugstore the day Dad’s first note from Alaska arrived. There used to be eight of them. I’m down to five. Most of them say things like “Greetings from Hampton Beach” or “Greetings from Lake Sunapee” in colorful bubble letters.

I pick one that says “Greetings from New Hampshire” in normal-sized letters and has a map of the state with pictures of plants and animals and people doing New Hampshire-type stuff, like fishing and hunting and skiing and canoeing and splashing in the ocean. Maybe seeing those things will make Dad homesick, and he’ll cut his Alaskan adventure (more like escape) short.

My pen is dried out, so I wet it with my tongue. I’m about to test it on an old notebook, when Kip’s voice cuts through the air. I cap the pen and tuck the postcard inside a paperback copy of Fahrenheit 451 that Aurora gave me at the end of school.

Kip charges into my room. He runs his fingers through his sculpted blond hair and tells me all about Angel’s Landing. About how it’s a special place and how we’re going to have a special meal and how this will be one of the most special nights of my mother’s life.

I nod and grunt and work up a smile every once in a while to show I’m listening. Which, unfortunately, I am. Because the only thing worse than missing out on memories with Dad is making new ones with his replacement.

Kip must be satisfied with my paying-attention act, because he leaves without dreaming up any gross chores for me to do. He even gives me an hour of “free time,” while he and Mom get ready for dinner.

I’m not in the mood to write to Dad anymore, so I sneak into the garage and hunt for a pair of bolt cutters. If Kip catches me, I’ll say I’m clearing a space on the utility shelf for those rowing trophies he thinks the dump guy is going to dig out of the garbage and bring back.

After ten minutes of looking, I’m convinced we don’t own a pair of bolt cutters. So I go back inside and Google how to break into a padlock. There are a bunch of good ideas on the Internet. I narrow them down to two easy ones: smashing the lock with a hammer and a screwdriver or making a lock-picking “shim” (a skinny piece of metal you jam into the lock to release the mechanism) out of a soda can.

My career as a burglar will have to wait, though. Because Mom and Kip are standing in my doorway, looking like life-sized ads for a spa or a cruise ship or some other kind of place where adults go to feel young and fresh and sparkly again. I hate to say it, but Mom is actually glowing. (Kip glows all the time, so that’s nothing new.)

I wish Dad could’ve made Mom glow like that. But with Rachel’s death hanging over him—over all of us—he never had a chance.

  1. # #

Kip, Mom, and I breeze past the framed menu, through a heavy brass door that looks like it belongs on a yacht, and into the lobby of Angel’s Landing.

The place is dark. Cavelike. Candles flicker in glass lanterns on bumpy stone walls. It smells earthy and ancient, like we’ve gone back in time.

Behind a gleaming wooden podium is a hostess who could be Aurora’s older sister, with her long black hair pulled tight in a wavy ponytail. She’s staring at a leather notebook, a pen hovering in the air and lines of concentration creasing her forehead.

“This’ll only take a second,” Kip tells Mom. He kisses her on the cheek and stalks off to interrupt the hostess.

Mom and I loiter by a bench (it’s actually a tree trunk split in half and shaped into a smooth, glossy seat) where a bunch of people are waiting for tables. “Isn’t this lovely?” Mom says, her eyes twinkling in the candlelight. “Kip has the best taste.”

“I thought you hated this place,” I say.

Mom looks confused. “Excuse me?”

I want to remind her about Dad and the $39 hamburger. But instead, I just stare at my feet. “Nothing.”

Kip and the hostess are leaning close together and talking low. It looks like they might be arguing, but then Kip smiles his wide movie-star grin and presses something small and green and papery (a big, fat bribe, I bet) into the hostess’s hand. Her face lights up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Kip waves Mom and me over to the podium. As we walk off, people’s eyes cut into our backs. “Right this way,” says the hostess, grabbing a handful of menus and leading us to a booth by a wall of windows. When I glance outside, I see that we’re right on the ocean; if we fall through the windows, we might drown.

Which explains the price of hamburgers. With this view, you could fry a bedroom slipper and people would line up around the block to pay $50 to eat it.

I don’t need to see the menu, because I know what I’m getting: the $39 hamburger. But I open it anyway (the hamburger now costs $42!) and pretend to read, while Mom and Kip snuggle together on the same side of the booth, opposite me. Kip’s got his arm around Mom’s shoulders, and he keeps laughing and whispering and pointing at the menu and telling her to order anything she wants—even the lobster (price: $89)—because money is no object, when it comes to someone as beautiful as her.

I can’t help thinking two things: first, Mom is pretty. There’s no denying that. She’s even $89-lobster pretty. But she’s not money-is-no-object pretty. That’s for supermodels and princesses and maybe a few big-time Hollywood actresses. Everyone else can only dream.

The second thing I’m thinking is that Kip must have made a major sale, like maybe that $8,200 ice chest he practically stole from that little old lady in Nashua. I hope we aren’t spending her heart-medicine money on expensive burgers and lobster.

I’m relieved when a waiter dressed in head-to-toe black appears at our table, because maybe Kip will back off Mom for a few minutes.

The waiter offers Mom and Kip a wine sample. They go for the “Spottswoode Cabernet from the heart of the Napa Valley” and end up ordering a whole bottle.

I get a Coke.

The waiter drops off the drinks and takes our food order, then vanishes.

“So,” says Kip, tilting his head and sloshing the wine around in his glass, “have you heard from your father? How’s he faring on the Alaskan tundra?”

“Fine. He’s fine,” I say.

“Ralph”—Mom means my dad, Ralph Sr.—“always did love the outdoors,” says Mom, a tinge of sadness in her voice.

“Better him than me,” says Kip. “You couldn’t pay me enough to gut fish sixteen hours a day. Imagine the smell. Probably takes years to get out.”

I stare outside at the seagulls, which are dive-bombing the surface of the water. In the distance, two boats crisscross paths and fan out in opposite directions. The scene looks like a painting come to life.

“Earth to Ralph,” Kip is suddenly saying. He slaps his hand on the table, rattling the glasses. “I asked you a question. The least you can do is answer me.”

“Uh . . .”

Mom lays her hand on Kip’s. “Shh.”

“You’re right,” says Kip. “It’s none of my business whether his father sent him anything for his birthday.” He shrugs. “That’s between them.”

If Dad’s gift ever does show up, I’m sure it’ll be better than the old comic books Kip got me. (They’re moth-eaten unknowns, like Ultimate Adventures and Daydreamers. I’m 99 percent sure he found them at the bottom of a random box of stuff he bought at an auction.)

Our food arrives and saves us from talking anymore. I dig in, without waiting for Mom or Kip. Which is a risk, because Kip might scold me for being rude.

The hamburger is good. Probably worth $12, at least.

Mom and Kip have matching plates of salmon. (At the last second, Mom decided she wasn’t $89-lobster pretty.) Even though they’ve got the same food, they take turns feeding each other, like helpless babies or lovesick teenagers. Once, I catch Mom’s eye and she looks embarrassed. But then she just takes another swig of wine and goes back to making a fool of herself.

I’m chewing each bite of the burger fifty times, to drag the meal out as long as possible. That way Mom and Kip will finish eating before me and we can get out of here before anything more ridiculous happens.

Mission accomplished. I’ve still got the edge of a hamburger bun and a mound of crispy French fries left, when Mom puts her fork down and says, “I surrender.” She waves her fancy cloth napkin around like a white flag.

Kip disagrees. He says we have to try the chocolate-mousse cake. It’s world famous, he says. It’s even been eaten by three U.S. presidents. (He doesn’t bother naming which ones, though.)

Mom shakes her head and laughs and tells Kip that she’ll be two hundred pounds before long, the way he’s spoiling her.

I study the crisscross pattern on the tablecloth while they kiss.

“Where is that waiter?” asks Kip. He sighs loud and deep. “I’m paying enough for this meal. I ought to get—” He jumps up and starts stalking around, like he’s going to give the waiter a piece of his mind—or a punch in the nose—when he finds the poor guy.

“Ralph, how was your dinner?” Mom asks, her voice abnormally light and loose.

Must be the wine.

“Okay,” I say with a shrug. I don’t want her getting the idea that I’m warming up to Kip.

“Just okay?”

Another shrug. “Pretty good, I guess.”

“The salmon was divine. I wonder if they’ll give me the recipe.”

A laugh rumbles around in my throat. Mom? Cook? No offense, but I’d rather eat that bedroom slipper. “You can ask,” I say.

Mom smiles and gulps down the last of her wine. I’m stuffing French fries in my mouth sideways, when Kip and the waiter come strolling back over to the table. The waiter has a sparkly gold plate with a slice of that chocolate-mousse cake on it.

One slice.

Something doesn’t feel right. I thought we were all getting dessert.

The waiter sets the plate in front of Mom. “For the lovely lady,” he says.

Mom turns bright red.

The waiter should be leaving, but he’s not. And Kip should be sitting down beside Mom and feeding her that cake, but he’s not. And the rest of the waiters and waitresses should be taking orders and filling water glasses and rushing back and forth to the kitchen, but they’re not. Instead, they’re forming a semicircle and closing in on us.

I gulp down the wad of French fries.

“Well . . . ?” says Kip, motioning at the cake. “Aren’t you going to try it?”

Why is everyone staring at us?

I don’t have to wait long for the answer. As Mom picks up the fork, a plinking sound draws my eye to the ring.

Why is there a ring around the handle of the fork?

The waiter steps aside and Kip drops to one knee. A murmur of excitement pulses through the air. My hearing cuts in and out, but somehow I understand that Kip is proposing marriage to Mom. And she’s accepting.

But she can’t accept, because she’s still married to Dad.

No one in the restaurant knows that, though. So they’re all whistling and hooting and applauding away, which gives me an even worse sinking feeling than I’ve already got.

Chapter 9

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I tell Aurora the next morning. When we got home last night, Mom called everyone we know—including Mrs. Fitzgerald—to blab the “happy news” about her and Kip. Mrs. Fitzgerald must have passed the news along to Aurora.

“Suit yourself,” says Aurora. “But I was going to agree with you; Kip is a dirtbag.”

“I wouldn’t say dirtbag,” I say, nudging her off the road and onto the grass. She was lucky to avoid serious injury when I bumped her with the Camry. She shouldn’t press her luck with the pickup trucks and SUVs whizzing by.

“Why not? Name one good thing he’s ever done for you.”

I shrug.

“Has he been nice to you even once? Not in front of your mother, I mean.”

I search my memory but come up empty. “He treats Mom pretty good,” I say. Which is true at the moment. But they’re still in the honeymoon phase.

“Pfft,” Aurora spits. “Of course, he does. She’s magnificent. Way out of his league.”

I’m glad to hear someone say that. “He is sort of a dirtbag, I guess,” I admit, thinking of how he rips people off by paying them less than their old stuff is worth. Plus, he’s on my case all the time for nothing.

“When’s your dad coming back?”

“I don’t know.”

We cover the last block to town in silence. It’s only eleven o’clock, which means Dorothy—Aurora’s mother’s helper—will be on duty at the thrift shop. And Aurora’s mother could be anywhere in the building, including the storage room.

“You got the screwdriver, right?” Aurora asks.

It’s in my back pocket. “Yup.”

“There’s a hammer in there”—she means the storage room, I think—“hanging on the wall.”

“I didn’t see a hammer,” I remark. But the storage room is so cluttered that I could’ve missed a rhinoceros. “You got the shim?”

She rolls her eyes. “Shims,” she says, emphasizing the final S. “There are two locking mechanisms, one on each side of the shackle. You need a shim for each one.”

We’re almost to the front door of the thrift shop, when a police car pulls up to the curb. A uniformed officer—short, lumpy, pencil-thin mustache—gets out and waddles inside.

Aurora and I swap nervous glances. “Um . . .” I say. There’s no way we’re busting into a stolen trunk with a cop lurking around.

“Change of plans,” Aurora says, her eyebrows shooting up. “You hungry?”

We cross the street and turn the corner and duck into The Terminal. The smell of pancakes and bacon hits us like a wall.

Mmm.

Aurora’s stomach growls so loud that I almost jump. “Counter or booth?” I ask.

She skips to the last booth in the row. I grab the seat against the wall, and she plops down across from me. “What do you think that cop was doing?” she asks, scanning a menu.

“Looked like he was on patrol.”

“What if he’s looking for the trunk?”

“Why would he do that?”

“Maybe John reported it stolen.”

“Uh-uh,” I say. “The kook—I mean, John—hates the police.”

She switches gears. “Want to split a Mount Washington?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

The Mount Washington is a giant stack of pancakes shaped like a mountain (duh), with whipped cream on top for snow and blueberries climbing the sides like ant-sized cars. I was on the real Mount Washington once, when Dad had his Harley-Davidson. (He crashed it last year, and Mom wouldn’t let him get a new one.) We did the Ride to the Sky, which is a day when the Mount Washington Auto Road is only open to motorcycles. You get to drive to the summit and see tons of high-up views of the clouds and the trees and all the other mountains around.

Aurora pops over to the counter and gives Old Man Foster our order. She’s wobbling back to the table with two glasses of ice water, when the slick-haired, plaid-shirted, algae-eyed lawyer-pest slips inside. He takes the booth next to us, unfolds a newspaper, and starts reading, peering over the top every once in a while to eyeball me.

Stalker.

Aurora plunks the water down on the table. She fishes an ice cube out of her glass and crunches it between her teeth. We whisper for a few minutes about the trunk—about what the kook could’ve wanted to hide so bad that he buried it in a fake (if it really is fake) grave.

Machineguns? Dynamite? Hundred-dollar bills? The bones of his tiny dead wife? (Aurora’s guess.)

I get the feeling that the lawyer-pest is eavesdropping on us, but there’s no way to prove it. And it doesn’t matter, anyway, because the pickup bell is ringing—diinnngggg!!!—and Old Man Foster is yelling, “Mount Washington on the counter!”

I hop up and grab the food. Soon we’re attacking the pancake mountain from both sides, our forks dueling like pirates’ swords. Aurora loves the whipped cream—Old Man Foster makes it from scratch—so I let her have most of it, except for one measly forkful. The blueberries are mine, not counting the two that roll off the table and end up on the gritty floor.

“I am so full,” Aurora says, sitting up straighter, like she needs more room to digest her food.

Do girls say stuff like that just to be polite? I mean, I could eat a couple of Mount Washingtons by myself without flinching.

I’m wiping my mouth with the back of my hand (The Terminal isn’t known for its supply of napkins), when the lawyer-pest gets up, tucks the newspaper under his arm, and passes our table on his way to the trashcan. Which is weird, because there’s another trashcan near the exit. So why is he walking an extra ten feet to toss his coffee cup at a dead end?

He probably just wants to gawk at us some more.

Aurora notices how I’m glued to the lawyer-pest’s every move. “Something wrong?” she asks.

The lawyer-pest throws away the coffee cup. Then he turns around and grins at me. His teeth are spiky and crowded together, like a piranha’s.

My mouth goes dry. “Nope,” I mutter, digging some crumpled birthday cash out of my pocket and dropping it on the table.

With a sigh, Aurora straightens out the money; meanwhile, I watch the lawyer-pest slink outside and disappear down the block.

When we get up from the table, something crunches under my foot. At first I think it’s an ice cube or a runaway blueberry. But it doesn’t feel right. Turns out it’s a folded piece of paper. It looks like garbage. I pick it up and reach for the trashcan. But then I notice something weird. On the flat side of the paper, tiny pencil letters say: RALPH TRUMAN JR.

Suddenly, the paper feels like it’s on fire. I must be imagining things, though, because there’s no smoke or flames or anything.

Aurora goes to pay the bill. I’ve just gotten the paper unfolded, when she comes dancing back over. “What’s that?” she asks, snatching the paper out of my hand. She grimaces as she reads, “Meet me at the corner of Locust and Dunn. Five minutes.”

“Must be the lawyer,” I mumble.

“Huh?”

“The lawyer. He left that. For me.”

“A lawyer? There’s a lawyer, in The Terminal?” She makes a show of looking around, like I’m inventing crazy stuff.

“Not anymore,” I say. “He’s probably on his way to—”

She consults the paper again. “Locust and Dunn?”

I shrug.

“Well, then . . .” she says. And before I know it, we’re rushing off to meet the guy.

Chapter 10

There’s no sign of the lawyer-pest—or anyone else suspicious—at the corner of Locust and Dunn. But there are tons of cars clogging the street, with their headlights on in the middle of a sunny day. I’m wondering what the backup is about, when Aurora says, “Funeral procession.” She points up the block. “See the hearse?”

I squint. “Yep.” But I’m still on the lookout for whoever left that bizarre note. Because if it wasn’t the lawyer-pest, then who was it?

Aurora and I zigzag between the stopped cars to the other side of Dunn Street. (Technically, there are four corners of Locust and Dunn—the streets cross like a giant plus sign—and we’ve only checked out one so far.)

The northwest corner is a bust, too. “I don’t get it,” I say. “Why would he leave a note and then just—?”

“Why do you assume it’s a man? Women can write stuff, too, you know.”

I sense a lecture coming on. . . .

Aurora continues, “I mean, sure, sometimes they had to write under men’s names, because of social prejudices and whatnot. Like George Eliot and Acton Bell and . . . and . . .”

“Mm-hmm.”

“. . . and even J.K. Rowling. Did you know she writes detective novels under the nom de plume Robert Galbraith?”

The parade of funeral cars starts inching along. “Maybe he meant over there,” I say, gesturing across Locust Street at the library.

Aurora sighs. “Whatever.”

The traffic on Locust Street is congested, too. But we make it to the northeast corner of the intersection, to the library’s rough granite steps, without getting splattered. “Okay, so . . .” I say, scanning everywhere for the lawyer-pest’s trademark plaid shirt.

It’s nowhere in sight.

Aurora plunks down on the steps. “That cop is probably gone by now, don’t you think?”

She’s right. We have better things to do than search for some mysterious note writer. Not to mention the fact that the author could be a dangerous kidnapper or murderer. “Yeah,” I say. “We should go back”—I take the screwdriver out of my pocket and swing it around—“and see what’s in that trunk.”

“Agreed.” She glances over her shoulder at the library. “I just need to grab a book first.”

Of course, she does.

“I’ll wait here,” I say. Because even though the note is probably a hoax, I wouldn’t mind a few more minutes of sleuthing.

Aurora disappears behind the library’s carved wooden door. (The thing looks like it belongs on Dracula’s castle, with curly-horned gargoyles perched on either side of it. “Gothic,” Aurora calls the whole spooky vibe. It just makes me think of Halloween.)

I pace up and down the sidewalk, looking, looking, looking. Great Swan is a small enough town, even in the summertime with all the tourists flooding in, that I recognize plenty of faces. So I do a bunch of smiling and nodding and even a little waving. But none of it gets me any closer to finding the author of the note.

I’ve pretty much given up the hunt, when a birdlike cawing sound catches my ear. It gets louder and louder. Eventually, I realize it’s the pterodactyl shriek of the kook next door.

My feet are unexplainably moving. Toward the sound. Toward the kook. Toward the . . . Camry?

Around the corner from the library—on the northeast edge of Locust and Dunn—is a silver car that looks familiar. It’s parked wrong, with the driver’s-side tires to the curb. The front seats are empty, and the back window is partway down. A pterodactyl whimper is leaking out into the street.

I take a deep breath and approach the car. Maybe the crazy pterodactyl sound is just an injured puppy that needs my help.

Nope.

The kook is scrunched up on the floor of the backseat, like he’s playing his own personal game of hide-and-seek. As usual, he’s dressed in camo fatigues and a ski mask, except for those cloudy gray eyes. “What took you so long, kid?”

I’m at a loss for words.

His eyes crinkle at the sides, like he might be grinning. He cranes his neck around. “Where’s your friend?”

I bob my head at the library. “Getting a book,” I say, when I should probably just take off. What if he knows we’ve stolen his trunk and is out for revenge?

The kook taps the driver’s seat. “Hop in.”

Not this again. “Was that you? Making that noise?”

“Of course, it was.”

“Why?” I ask. “Why were you doing that?”

“Come on, kid.” He sighs. “Don’t you know a secret signal when you hear one?”

“It wasn’t very secret,” I mutter. “The whole block must’ve heard you.”

“Calculated risk.”

I’m thinking about the note—about whether the lawyer-pest is working with the kook somehow—when Aurora’s voice surprises me from behind. “Jeez,” she says. “There you are. Next time, tell a person before you—”

I turn around casually. Instead of a single book, Aurora’s got an armload of the things. “Sorry,” I say.

Her eyebrows pull together. “What’re you doing?”

She hasn’t noticed the car, I guess. Or else she hasn’t put two and two together. “Just . . . uh . . .” The kook pops into the car window. Aurora reels backward, and the books tumble to the ground. I help her gather them up, whispering, “Act natural. And whatever you do, don’t get in the car.”

“I’m not an idiot,” she huffs, tucking the last book—a fat text with the word genealogy in the title—into the crook of her arm.

“Hey, kid,” the kook says, “hurry up. You’re attracting undue attention.”

Wow. Could this dude be any crazier? If anyone’s attracting undue attention, it’s him.

Aurora marches up to the car window. “What do you want?”

The kook says some vague, rambling stuff about diabolical forces and needing our help. I’m pretty sure he’s the diabolical one, but Aurora has fallen under his spell again. Before I know it, she’s jumping into the passenger seat and motioning for me to drive.

She’s got to be kidding.

I glance up and down the street, hoping to spot a police officer. Because confessing to burglary seems less risky than going along with whatever the kook has planned next.

No luck.

As I tug the door handle, the air drains out of me. “You know, it’s the middle of the day,” I say, settling uncomfortably into the driver’s seat. “I can’t actually drive anywhere. Someone will notice.”

The kook’s arm shoots out between the seats. He’s holding a tweed gangster-style hat. “Problem solved,” he says, shaking the thing around.

Aurora’s eyes shine. “A fedora?” She grabs the hat and wiggles it onto her head. “I’ve always wanted one of these.” She looks beautiful and mysterious and like a totally different person. Which, I guess, is why the kook wants me to wear the thing: to trick people into thinking I’m older.

The kook says, “I’m afraid not.”

Aurora shrugs and passes the hat to me. I ease it on and check my reflection in the rearview mirror. I look stupid. Lame. Ridiculous. “Nobody’s going to believe—”

“Time’s up,” says the kook. “Now step on it.” He whacks the back of my seat, like he’s whipping a horse.

The car is already running, with the air conditioning on full blast. I search Aurora’s face one last time, but she looks relaxed and happy and not at all scared.

Does she know something I don’t?

“Um, okay,” I say, even though it makes no sense. I shift the car into gear and snail us out into traffic. “Which way?”

“That’s strictly on a need-to-know basis,” says the kook.

I’m thinking so hard about keeping us alive (traffic is pretty heavy, even though the funeral parade has cleared out) that I can’t argue with the kook’s flawed logic. I mean, if anyone needs to know where we’re going, it’s the driver—aka me.

No one says anything for a couple of minutes, so I just follow the car in front of us and try to avoid smashing into any pedestrians or bicyclists.

So far, so good.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see the kook moving around. “You’re in the wrong lane,” he mutters. “Get over. Quick.”

I jerk the wheel and cut off a whole row of cars, triggering a chain reaction of screeching horns. “Oops.”

We make a few more turns. Finally, the kook says, “Pull in here.” He means a shabby strip mall with an emptyish parking lot.

I get the Camry roughly between the blotchy lines of a parking spot, but I forget to shift it out of gear. When my foot comes off the brake, we roll forward a little. I panic and jam on the gas.

The kook is cursing and Aurora is gasping and I’m holding on for dear life, like the car is possessed and my foot on the accelerator has nothing to do with it. We’re lurching straight for the window of a hardware store, when Aurora starts shouting, “Brake-brake-brake-brake-braaake!”

Somehow her words make it to my brain. And my brain signals my leg. And my leg controls my foot. And we jolt to a stop, inches from a cinderblock curb and feet from catapulting through a plate-glass window.

Whew!

The kook reaches between the seats and puts the car in park. I’m sort of insulted, but he’s got a point. My driving hasn’t exactly been stellar.

My heart is still twitching like a Mexican jumping bean. And my breathing is shallow and rapid. When I glance over at Aurora, she looks shaken up, too.

I guess a near-death experience will do that to you.

Not the kook, though. He’s spouting instructions and pushing a pile of cash into my hand and shooing us out of the car.

I stop Aurora on the sidewalk. “Did you catch that?”

She shrugs. “Fertilizer,” she says. “He wants us to get four 36-pound bags. If anyone asks, we’re supposed to say it’s for a summer-school project.”

That’s the dumbest excuse I’ve ever heard. But I can’t worry about that now. Because I think I’ve figured out what the kook is doing: building a bomb.

Chapter 11

I should’ve taken off the fedora, because everyone (which is just a few old guys) in the hardware store is staring at me like I’m Al Capone. Like I’m going to pull a machinegun out of my trench coat (I’m not even wearing a trench coat!) and blow them away.

“Oh, shoot,” says Aurora, prancing ahead of me into an aisle of plumbing supplies. She spins back around. “We need a shopping cart.”

This place is so rundown—I mean, there are ruts in the floor, for Pete’s sake!—that I doubt they have anything as luxurious as a shopping cart. “Find the fertilizer,” I say. “I’ll be right there.”

I’m backtracking for the entrance, when the cashier, a teenage girl with a bunch of face piercings, asks, “Can I help you?”

“Um, yeah.” I glance around uncertainly. “Do you have shopping carts?”

Her lips twist sideways. “Stolen,” she says. “There’s a lot more homeless people around here than there used to be.”

How am I supposed to carry 150 pounds of dirt? That’s like lifting a full-grown dead body. “What about that one?” I ask, pointing at a cart jammed in behind the checkout counter.

A wad of chewing gum tumbles around in her mouth. “It’s got two broken wheels,” she says, shrugging. “But you can try it.” She fights the cart out of its cubbyhole.

I grab it and muscle it forward. It’s clunking and groaning and squeaking real bad, but it makes it all the way to the gardening area, where Aurora is waiting with her hands on her hips.

We load the cart with fertilizer. It sags like a snow-covered roof. And it’s even harder to push than before. But Aurora and I line up side by side and, with all our strength, force the thing—one exhausting clunk at a time—through the checkout line and out to the Camry.

The kook says to put the fertilizer in the trunk. By the time we’re done, we’re tired and out of breath. “Can we walk home from here?” I ask Aurora, as I’m slamming the trunk shut. Being the driver, I should have a better idea of where we are. But I don’t. It’s like I drove here in a trance.

“Sure,” says Aurora, “if you don’t mind killing a couple of hours.” Her cheeks are flushed and her hairline is matted with sweat. And she looks as wiped out as an NFL quarterback after a championship game.

Obviously, we’re not walking anywhere.

We flop back into the car and soak up the air conditioning and wait for the kook to tell us what to do next.

He wants eight more bags of fertilizer (can the Camry even hold that much weight without buckling?)—four from a hole-in-the-wall farm-supply place and two each from Lowe’s and Home Depot, which I have to drive pretty far to get to. When Aurora asks why we didn’t just buy twelve bags at the hardware store, the kook says something about evading detection and covering our tracks, which confirms my worst fear.

He’s definitely up to something illegal. I just hope it’s not a terrorist plot. Because I think the government can execute you for that. And your dumb, underage accomplices, too.

  1. # #

Only one of Rachel’s pictures is still up when I get home. It’s the one in the lacy white frame on the stand in the corner by the fireplace, where baby Rachel is wearing a bumblebee costume with little fuzzy antennae sprouting out of her head.

I hate to agree with Kip, but the house feels lighter without all those pictures around. Like the pain and sadness and guilt (even though Mom and Dad never talk about it, they’re majorly guilty about not saving Rachel) has floated out the window like a puff of ghost smoke.

I’m the only one home, so I grab a bag of pretzel rods and a bottle of water and drop into Dad’s recliner for some uninterrupted TV time. I’ve only gotten through two pretzels—I’m pretending they’re cigars and practicing smoking them, in case Dad makes good on his promise when he gets back from Alaska—and five minutes of American Pickers, when I notice the little red light on the answering machine blinking.

I don’t know why we still have a landline phone, when no one calls it anymore except salesmen and politicians and—every two weeks on the dot—my grandmother. But she just called yesterday.

I stretch for the answering machine and play the messages. The first one is a lady offering to refinance our mortgage. I save the message, in case Mom is interested.

The next message seems like a dud, because no one says anything for a few seconds. But then Dad’s voice catches my ear. “Ralph. Hey, Ralph. It’s Dad,” he’s saying, like maybe I’ve forgotten him by now. “I—uh, um—wanted to call and say hi. See how your summer’s going.” He pauses, like he’s waiting for me—or Mom—to pick up the phone. “So, uh, that’s it. Just calling to check in. Things here are good. Hope you’re good, too. We’ll talk soon, okay?” Another big, heavy pause. “I love you.” After some more dead air, he hangs up.

I save Dad’s message, so Mom will hear it when she listens to the mortgage lady.

Kip is up next on the machine, telling me that Mom is staying in Boston overnight. She’s got a late tutoring session today and an early one tomorrow, which makes traveling back and forth not really worth it. Kip says he’s thinking of going to Boston, too, to keep Mom company in the hotel, so she doesn’t get bored and lonely.

I call him back as fast as my fingers will dial. When his voice mail picks up, I leave a message saying I’ll be fine alone overnight. Then I head for my room to write that postcard to Dad that I never got started last time around.

This time, I know what to say.

Hi Dad,

Sorry it took me so long to write. Summer has been okay. The crazy guy next door is acting even crazier than usual. Aurora and I have been trying to figure him out, but we don’t have much to go on so far. Maybe you can help us when you get back. (I draw a little thumbs-up. Then I check his latest postcard for something else to write about, since I can’t just announce that Mom and Kip are engaged.) That stinks about your boots. I hope you get a new pair. (I insert another thumbs-up, only bigger.) There’s a FOR RENT sign in the second-floor window of the brick building by the library. I think the apartment is big enough for both of us. Let me know if you want me to check it out. I could go over there with Aurora’s mother or someone and take pictures. (I draw a final thumbs-up and a wiggly trail of fish.) Call again whenever you can. I’ll try to be home.

Your Son,

Ralph Truman Jr.

I search my desk drawer for the sheet of colorful bird stamps that Mom got me for mailing the postcards. At first I can’t find them, but then I feel them stuck to the side of the drawer. Once the postcard is ready, I practically run to the mailbox and put up the little red flag, even though Frenchie has already been here today.

I take the handful of junk mail Frenchie has left behind. There’s a travel brochure with pictures of cruise ships and white-sand beaches and suntanned couples holding umbrella drinks and laughing with their mouths open. And there’s something for Kip from the New Hampshire Department of Safety, Division of Motor Vehicles. And, ugh, there’s something for the kook, too. At least I think it’s for him. But this time, instead of being addressed to “resident,” the thing—a plain white business envelope with no return address—is addressed to “Mr. Guy Montag.”

Sounds made up. Even more made up than John Jay Wallace, the dead war hero the kook is pretending to be.

I’m thinking about tossing the envelope in the garbage—I mean, the kook will never know, right?—when I hear the phone ringing inside. I barrel through the kitchen and into the living room. “Hello?” I gasp, snatching the receiver.

I’m expecting Kip, telling me that he’s on the train to Boston. Instead, it’s Aurora. “I got the trunk open,” she says in a small, jittery voice. “You won’t believe what’s inside.”

Chapter 12

Aurora won’t tell me anything about the trunk over the phone, in case the kook (she’s still calling him John, though) has our phones bugged. Instead, she wants to come over and talk about stuff in person. I’m all for that, especially if Kip follows through on his threat to leave town.

Two minutes after I hang up with Aurora, Kip’s SUV pulls into the driveway. He’s in such a hurry that when I try to give him his mail, he just holds up a hand and says, “Later,” and keeps on going.

I drop all the mail except the kook’s mysterious envelope in the basket on the counter. Then I remember the pretzels (and the crumbs I’ve left scattered like fresh snow over Dad’s recliner) and quickly clean up, to erase any reason Kip has for staying home and babysitting me.

Kip doesn’t even go into the living room, though. He just blurts a list of do’s and don’ts and whizzes out the door like he’s on roller skates.

I can’t believe Mom has agreed to let me stay home alone, but being thirteen has its perks, I guess. Like unlimited TV and video games and junk food and a bedtime of my choosing. Before I can take advantage of my new freedom, though, Aurora comes storming through the door. I half expect her to be dragging the kook’s trunk along behind her, but she’s not. Instead, she’s got a swollen backpack hanging off her shoulder. “Where’s your mother?” she demands.

“Gone. Boston.”

“Kip?”

“He just left.”

“Good.” She sighs. “Lock the doors and close the windows—and the blinds or curtains or whatever—and meet me in your room.” Her voice is as solid as lead.

She marches off down the hall, while I turn the house into Fort Knox. “So . . . ?” I say, leaning on the doorframe of my room.

She’s sitting on my bed with the bulging backpack stiffly beside her, like she doesn’t dare touch the thing. “Go ahead,” she says, glancing sideways at it.

I cross my arms. “What is it?”

“The things . . . the things from . . .”

“The trunk?”

She nods grimly.

“You moved them from—?”

“I couldn’t just haul it over here like . . . like . . .”

“I guess not,” I say, shrugging.

“Go on,” she says, unzipping the backpack. “See for yourself.”

She’s being dramatic, if you ask me. Then again, that’s Aurora sometimes: she makes things bigger than they are. “Shove over,” I say, dropping down beside her.

She wiggles to the foot of the bed. I tip the backpack upside down—it’s weirdly light and heavy at the same time—and shake it around, trying to dislodge the kook’s secrets.

“Maps?” I say, when about ten of the crumpled things spill out. I dig around in the backpack and find about a hundred more. I pile them between Aurora and me. “Why would he bury these?” I ask, plucking a map out of the pile. Like the newspapers in the kook’s living room, the map is littered with notes and symbols and exclamation points galore.

I’m trying to decipher a particular phrase—it looks like it says bomb turtles—when Aurora says what I’ve been thinking all along. “Terrorism.” She shakes her head. “I mean, what else could it be, right?”

I’m too distracted to say anything.

“Right?” she says again.

Or maybe the phrase says comb your toes.

“Don’t you think?” she keeps trying.

“Dunno,” I mumble.

“Well, if it is terrorism,” she says, sounding offended, “we’ve got to report him. ‘If you see something, say something,’ right?” She hops up and starts pacing between the desk and the bed. “It’s not our fault. I mean, we didn’t—we don’t—know anything. They can’t hold us responsible for—” She lifts the curtain and peeks outside. “God, I hope he didn’t kill anyone.”

“He didn’t,” I say, still staring at the map. It’s a map of Israel, with landscape features like forests and deserts and stuff. On the dark-green part—the forests, I guess—are a bunch of scattered X’s and even a shaky-looking bull’s-eye, drawn in blood-red marker.

Aurora’s face puckers. “How do you know? You’re the one who’s always calling him a nut or a loon or—”

“A kook,” I say, correcting her. “But I didn’t mean it that way. I don’t think he’d actually kill anyone.” I could be wrong, though.

Aurora looks doubtful. “Then what’s he doing with all of these?” she asks, snatching a map off the pile and fanning it open. “Give me one good reason, one harmless reason, for him having a detailed map of”—she gets her bearings on the page—“South Dakota?” She goes from doubtful to confused. “What’s in South Dakota?”

“Mount Rushmore?”

“Oh, jeez, you’re right,” she says, knocking herself upside the head. “He’s going to blow up Mount Rushmore!”

“Nobody’s blowing up anything,” I say, trying to calm her down. “Not on our watch.”

“So now we’re responsible for monitoring this . . . kook?” She stamps her foot like an impatient horse. “I don’t think so.”

“Let’s just look at the rest of these,” I say, waving at the pile. “And see what we can figure out. I bet there’s a logical explanation.”

She rolls her eyes and snorts. But she goes along with me, anyway. And soon my bedroom looks like the command center of Homeland Security, with a bunch of maps stuck to the walls with borrowed thumbtacks.

“I don’t get it,” I say, stepping back for an overview of one particular wall. “Why is he so obsessed with Tennessee? He’s got . . .”—I go around the room counting—“. . . eleven, twelve, thirteen maps of Tennessee alone. And eight of California.”

“California makes sense,” says Aurora, nodding aggressively. She nibbles her fingernails. “Because of all the obvious targets, like Hollywood and the Golden Gate Bridge and Disneyland and—”

“You think the kook wants to blow up Disneyland?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.” She stares at a map of California, like she’s waiting for it to speak—or trying to read its mind. “Probably not, though,” she finally admits. “There aren’t any marks around Anaheim. That’s where Disneyland is, I think.”

She’s right; the kook has left the whole southwest corner of California alone. In a weird way, it looks lonely down there, without any cryptic phrases or 3-D doodles (the kook is fond of drawing empty cubes, for some reason) or X-marks-the-spots.

Suddenly, I get a bright idea. “We should make a list of target cities,” I say, “and search them on the Internet. Maybe there’s a connection we can’t see.”

Aurora grabs a notebook off my desk and collects the city names. I stand over her shoulder, while she types and types and comes up with absolutely nothing. “This isn’t working,” she whines.

My frustration is climbing, too. “Switch?” I say. We swap places. I pick up where she left off, with the same results. But then I get another idea. “Where’s that map of Israel?”

She swings her arm around. “Over there. Why?”

The Israeli map is what Aurora calls “an anomaly,” because it doesn’t fit with the rest of the maps. All of the others are from the United States. She says we shouldn’t even bother looking at Israel, because it will only confuse us. “Just let me see it,” I say.

“Whatever,” she says with a huff. She yanks the thing off the wall and drops it in my lap.

When I Google the area that the kook has marked off—Mount Carmel, it’s called—I find a bunch of religious information about a prophet named Elijah and fire falling from the sky, proving Yahweh (he’s the Jewish god, the Internet says) as the true god over another god called Baal. All of this happened on Mount Carmel, apparently. At the same spot the kook has practically blotted out with giant X’s.

He must be a religious fanatic or something.

I keep digging for info on Mount Carmel, eventually uncovering another interesting tidbit. Something more recent. Something that might actually be a clue. “Hey, look,” I say, nudging Aurora’s hip. She leans in and stares at the screen. “In 2010, there was a big fire on Mount Carmel that killed forty-four people. And then ‘a wave of arsons’ spread across Israel and the West Bank.”

“I don’t know where that is,” says Aurora.

“The Middle East, I think.”

“Great.”

A light bulb goes off in my head. I start Googling the word fire plus the names of the kook’s target cities.

Jackpot!

“That’s it,” I say, my voice jumping up a few notches. “That’s what he’s doing.”

Aurora isn’t following my train of thought. “Huh?”

“Fires. Arson,” I say. “He’s an arsonist.”

“We don’t know that.”

“Yes, we do. All the spots he’s marked off have had suspicious fires in the last five years. That can’t be a coincidence.”

“It could be.” Now she’s just being stubborn.

“It’s not,” I insist. “Your friend John Jay Wallace is an arsonist. A murderer. And God knows what else.”

“You think he meant to kill those people?”

“Well, he didn’t mean to bake them a cake.”

Aurora glances around at the maps. “You’ve checked all of these?” she asks skeptically.

I shrug. “Not all of them.”

We take down every last map and go over them again, finding something alarming: the clusters of bull’s-eyes and bloody X’s in Colorado, Washington, and—gulp—New Hampshire don’t match up with any fires . . . yet. “I hope you’re wrong about him,” says Aurora, biting her lip.

“Me too.”

Chapter 13

We should probably be freaking out about the arsonist next door, but we don’t have any real proof. And the fertilizer-buying spree doesn’t exactly add up with the arson theory. Plus, we’ve got the house to ourselves, which is too good to waste worrying about stuff that might not even be happening.

“Doesn’t your mom keep anything sweet around here?” asks Aurora, pawing through our pantry. “I’d die if I had to live here.”

“Yeah, okay,” I say with a laugh, spinning the kook’s mysterious envelope around on the kitchen table. “Check the top shelf. Behind the peanut butter. Sometimes she hides stuff back there.”

“Granola bars?” she says, frowning. “I meant, like, Devil Dogs or something.”

There’s zero chance of her finding a Devil Dog—or any other snack cake—in our cupboards. Even though Mom isn’t a health nut, she won’t keep that sort of stuff around; she says it’s too easy to eat without thinking. “There might be a cookie mix,” I say, “on the shelf with the flour and the baking powder.”

“Got it,” chirps Aurora. “Ooh, and it’s chocolate chip, too. I was afraid it was going to be oatmeal raisin.” She makes a gagging face. “You have butter and eggs, right? And a baking pan?”

I gather a mixing bowl and a spoon and everything else she needs. Then I preheat the oven to 375 degrees, like the package says. She combines the ingredients and forms the dough into little balls. We only have one cookie sheet, so Aurora tells me to coat it real good with nonstick spray, which I do.

Once the first batch is in the oven, we put on the radio (it’s quiet in here, all of a sudden) and lean against the counter, taking turns eating raw dough out of the bowl. It’s delicious. And the cookies smell awesome baking, too.

“Oh, my God,” Aurora says, dropping her spoon in the bowl with a clang. “I forgot to tell you about the jewelry thief.”

I squint. “Jewelry thief?”

“Remember that cop? At the shop before?” she says. “He was there because of a robbery. Mom’s freaking out, because the stuff that he—the robber, I mean—stole is worth like five thousand bucks.”

“With a gun?” I ask. “Your mother was robbed at gunpoint?” Forget the kook. An actual criminal is roaming the streets of Great Swan, threatening people with deadly force.

“No,” Aurora says, brushing off my concern. “Nothing like that. The jewelry—two antique rings, a pearl necklace, and a diamond tennis bracelet—was snatched out of the case, when Mom wasn’t looking. She thinks the robber might’ve had an accomplice, but she isn’t sure. She doesn’t even know when the stuff was stolen, because the robber only took a few things, not everything in the case. She just noticed it was missing.”

“Do the police have any leads?”

“Nope. Whoever did it was real smooth. He—or she, I guess—must’ve blended in, because no one noticed anything out of the ordinary. It’s probably someone we know,” Aurora says. “Can you believe that? Thieves—and God knows what other kinds of lunatics—creeping around under our noses?”

The cookies smell done. I grab the shiny silver mitt Dad uses for grilling and tell Aurora to stand back, while I open the oven door. She grumbles but does what I say.

The cookies are golden brown. I’m sifting through the utensil drawer for a spatula, when Aurora says, “What’s this?”

I glance over my shoulder. “Dunno,” I say. “The kook’s mail?”

“But is says ‘Guy Montag.’ You know who that is, right?”

“The neighbor?”

Aurora sighs. “Seriously?”

I shrug.

“I don’t know why I bother.” She holds the envelope up to the light, like she’s trying to see inside. “Guy Montag is the protagonist of Fahrenheit 451. You know what Fahrenheit 451 is, don’t you?”

“That book by Roy Bradbury,” I say, prying the first cookie off the pan.

“Ray,” says Aurora. “It’s Ray Bradbury. Guy Montag is the fireman—or one of them, anyway—who burns the books.”

“Firemen burn books?”

“Just read it,” she says flatly. “You’ll understand.”

“But why is the kook—?”

“Please stop calling him that,” says Aurora, wincing. “It’s not nice.”

I argue that kook is a perfectly fine word. That it fits the neighbor to a T. That it’s not necessarily an insult. (Isn’t she always saying that quirky people are interesting?) That the world has gone mad, declaring every other word offensive. That I’m a beacon of free speech. And isn’t that what this great nation of ours was founded on, anyway?

She doesn’t buy my argument for a second. And by the pinch-faced way she’s staring at me, I know she never will. So I give in and agree to call the kook “John.” But she can’t control my thoughts. I’ll call him whatever I want inside my own head.

I shove a cookie in my mouth. “Anyway,” I say, spitting crumbs down the front of my shirt, “why is ‘John’ getting mail for a fictitious character? Don’t you think that’s suspicious?”

She stares piercingly at the envelope before plopping it back down on the table. “Gimme one,” she says, waving at the cookies.

I comply. Then I wiggle the rest of the cookies off the pan and let them cool on a dinner plate. Aurora balls up the leftover dough—which is only nine cookies’ worth—and gets it baking in the oven.

“Suspicious? Absolutely,” she says, picking up where we left off. “But suspicious how?”

I’ve been thinking about the kook’s barn and the newspapers and the maps and the fires and the fertilizer and the jewelry thief and Dad’s missing gift and the “fireman” called Guy Montag, who burns books and gets mail next door. It’s like a puzzle with a bunch of missing pieces. Or two different puzzles that don’t fit together.

Except the fire part. Maybe the kook is setting fires and using Guy Montag as a code name to cover his tracks.

I’m about to float the idea by Aurora, when a knock sounds at the door.

“I’ll get it,” she says, skipping through the living room.

The girl is always two steps ahead of me—literally. “Nobody’s home!” I yell. The knocker is probably one of Mom’s friends—Suzie from yoga class or Elaine from the bookstore—stopping by to gossip about Mom and Kip’s engagement. “Tell them to come back tomorrow.”

The door whooshes open. Aurora starts talking to someone. I can’t tell if it’s Suzie or Elaine, with the radio squawking in my ear.

A few seconds later, Aurora is striding back into the kitchen with—I blink a couple of times, in case I’m seeing things—the lawyer-pest on her heels.

“This gentleman is looking for his cat,” says Aurora, bobbing her head at the lawyer-pest, who’s added a pair of silver eyeglasses to his plaid-shirted wardrobe. “He’s an orange tabby and his name is Fritz. Have you seen him?”

The lawyer-pest lingers in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, algae-eyeing everything and saying nothing. It hits me that he might be the jewelry thief, since he was in the thrift shop the other day, acting peculiar. He’s also working with the kook somehow—though I can’t exactly say how—because of that note he dropped at The Terminal.

I shake my head. “Nope,” I say about the cat. “Maybe animal control has him.”

The lawyer-pest clears his throat. “Fritz is fond of basements and attics,” he says. “Could I look around? I’d hate to think he’s curled up somewhere, starving.”

Aurora’s eyes mist over. “That’s okay, right?”

“I’ll go with him,” I say with a sigh. I don’t want the lawyer-pest sneaking off with any of Kip’s overpriced antiques. “You watch the cookies.”

She shoots me a salute. “Aye-aye.”

I can’t decide whether to take the lawyer-pest up to the attic—which I doubt any cat could infiltrate—or down to the basement first, even though both are probably cat free. But then the lawyer-pest motions down the hall, toward the basement door.

The basement it is.

I open the door and feel around on the wall for the light switch. The bulb at the bottom of the stairs flickers on, and I lead the lawyer-pest down the rickety steps. “Fritzy!” he starts calling. “Here, Fritzy!”

The basement is cool and musty, even in the summer. It’s also full of half-done projects, like the porch swing Dad was building for Mom, so she could sit outside at night with a glass of iced tea and grade papers, before she broke the news about Kip and offered to move out.

Dad told her to stay. Which meant he had to go away instead.

Once we get downstairs, I keep my distance from the lawyer-pest, in case he’s planning on whacking me over the head, locking me in the coffin freezer, and kidnapping Aurora on his way out.

Nothing like that happens, though. The lawyer-pest just slinks around, calling for poor, lost Fritzy and looking behind stacks of lumber and towers of plastic totes, in case the cat is trapped somewhere.

He’s not. And there’s only so much basement to check. So we head back upstairs, with the lawyer-pest leading the way. As he climbs the last few steps, he starts moaning and limping and rubbing his leg. “Pardon me,” he mutters. “I seem to have pulled a muscle.”

We rejoin Aurora in the kitchen. When she offers the lawyer-pest a cookie, I can’t help rolling my eyes. I mean, we know nothing about this guy, except that he keeps popping up in the weirdest places, for no good reason. “I shouldn’t,” says the lawyer-pest, patting his belly. “I’m watching my weight.” He beams a piranha smile. “You could do me a favor, though.”

“Sure,” says Aurora, without consulting me.

“You could help this fine young man”—he means me, I guess—“check the attic for Mr. Fritz. I won’t be much help with this, er, injury.” He taps his leg and frowns.

Aurora pulls a chair out from the table. “Here,” she says, motioning for the lawyer-pest to sit.

He does.

She tugs me toward the living room. “We’ll be right back,” she says, crossing her fingers, like we might actually find the missing cat.

But we don’t. And when we get back to the kitchen, the lawyer-pest is gone, too, along with three cookies (Aurora was keeping track) and Guy Montag’s mail.

Chapter 14

It’s sort of creepy staying alone overnight, because of the kook and the lawyer-pest. Every little noise—like the refrigerator cycling on and off or the wind howling through the garage—seems like one of them breaking in to attack me.

So when Kip shows back up the next day, I’m actually glad to see him. Only he’s not so glad to see me. He comes grumbling through the door, sighing and complaining about Mom. About how she’s sensitive and fickle, changing her mind all the time in unpredictable ways. About how she nitpicks the fun right out of things. About how she treats me like a two-year-old, which, according to Kip, will turn me into a “mushy man-boy who’s afraid of his own shadow”—if it hasn’t already. “Mark my words,” he says about my unavoidable decline. “You’ll see.”

Half of me is upset that Kip and Mom aren’t getting along; the other half hopes Dad can win Mom back somehow. Except that Dad is too far away and, as far as I know, hasn’t even spoken to Mom in a month.

Kip doesn’t stay around for long. He just brews a cup of coffee in his Starbucks travel mug (he and Mom got matching ones, as symbols of their love), makes a couple of whispered phone calls, and loads the back of his SUV with antiques from Rachel’s room. He leaves without saying where he’s going or when he’ll be back.

Five minutes later, Mom calls. Even though Kip is wrong about me, his words are echoing in my head when I answer. “Yeah?”

“Ralph?” says Mom.

“Yeah.”

“I’m on the train. I’ll be there in an hour.”

“You’re coming home early?”

“Mm-hmm.” Mom yawns, like maybe she didn’t get enough sleep. Like maybe she was up all night fighting with Kip. “Is everything all right there?”

I spread some peanut butter on a slice of bread and stuff it in my mouth. “Fine,” I mumble, the bread sticking to the roof of my mouth. “Kip went to work,” I say, even though I’m not sure he did. But saying so might make Mom feel like things are normal. Like she hasn’t dumped Dad for a jerk who might turn around and dump her, too.

Mom says, “Oh.”

“Can I go to Aurora’s?”

“I’d rather you didn’t.” She sighs. “I’d like to see you for a few minutes, before I crawl into bed.”

Mom’s planning on napping in the middle of the day? She only does that twice a year: Rachel’s birthday and the day Rachel died. Actually, she doesn’t get out of bed on those days, so maybe this is different.

“I guess I should mow the lawn,” I say.

“Be careful,” warns Mom. “Especially around the flower beds. Some of the retaining blocks are loose.”

I agree, which gets her to hang up and stop bugging me—at least for now.

The lawnmower is sort of junky, so I have to prime it a bunch of times and yank the cord until my arm feels like it’s going to fall off. Eventually, it starts, but it’s sputtering and smoking pretty bad. I only get three rows’ worth of grass cut before it coughs to a stop.

Out of gas.

I check the garage and find only a splash of gas left in the can. I add it to the lawnmower and pray it’s enough to finish the front lawn, so our house doesn’t start looking like The Addams Family.

God must have better things to do, though, because the lawnmower quits again after only half a row of grass has bitten the dust. Which leaves me no choice but to quit, too. I’m in the driveway, sitting on one of those collapsible chairs you bring to baseball games, staring into the kook’s forest and wondering if he really is an arsonist or a terrorist or worse, when Mom comes coasting along on her bike.

She swings a wide semicircle around me and parks in the garage. “What happened?” she asks, frowning at the lawn.

I point at the gas can. “Empty.”

“Sounds about right,” she says. “Kip isn’t exactly Mr. Fix-It, is he?” With a spacey look on her face, she twirls the engagement ring—a pear-shaped emerald that belonged to Kip’s Swedish great-grandmother—around her finger, like she’s thinking about something.

Maybe she’s considering giving the ring back.

I shrug, because I don’t know if she wants me to stick up for Kip or put him down. And I don’t feel like doing either right now.

Mom digs around in her pocket. “Here,” she says, passing me a ten-dollar bill. She gestures at the garage. “Why don’t you walk to the Shell station and fill up that can?”

I tuck the money in my sock. “Yeah, okay,” I say. “Can I go to Aurora’s after?”

“Once you finish the lawn,” Mom says, ruffling my hair. “Deal?”

“Deal.”

  1. # #

Two gallons of gas weigh more than you’d think, especially when you’re stuck carrying them three-quarters of a mile, switching them from hand to hand so your muscles don’t spaz out. By the time I get back home, my arm is as limp as the kook’s.

The mower starts up a lot better with the new gas, though. I get the lawn done pretty quick, which should make Mom and Kip happy.

When I go inside to tell Mom that I’m leaving, she’s out cold on the couch with her head jammed into the armrest and her legs tucked under her. I guess she never made it to bed.

On the table by her head, the engagement ring is sitting on a stack of papers and notebooks. I wonder if she always takes it off when she sleeps, or if she’s so mad at Kip for leaving me home alone (I guess he didn’t ask her permission) that she can’t stand wearing it anymore.

I grab a sticky note from a pad on the refrigerator and scribble a reminder about my whereabouts. Then I wedge it under the ring, so she spots it first thing when she wakes up.

  1. # #

On top of running the thrift shop, Aurora’s mom rents out the upstairs of her house and even one of the bedrooms downstairs, where she and Aurora live, to bring in extra money for stuff like haircuts and sneakers and maybe, if Aurora gets lucky, a nine-hundred-dollar-a-week writing camp in Manhattan next summer.

I hike the saggy front steps and rap on the screen door. The Fitzgeralds’ boarder—or Pippa, as Aurora calls the miniature retired librarian—shuffles to the door and lets me in. I follow her swishing housedress to the back of the apartment, where Aurora’s bedroom is tucked in a corner behind the laundry room. “She’s all yours,” says Pippa, making a sharp left for the bathroom.

Aurora’s room—which is more of a closet, actually—smells like cotton candy and clean sheets. Aurora is stretched out on the bed. “Took you long enough,” she says, not bothering to look up from a fat book. She licks her finger and flips the page.

I explain about Mom and Kip fighting and Mom coming home early from work and the lawnmower running out of gas, which seems to satisfy her.

“Did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald was related to Francis Scott Key, the author of The Star-Spangled Banner?” she asks from nowhere.

Not this again. I shove against her on the bed. “Yeah,” I say. “I think you mentioned that before.” Even though she drives me crazy with her F. Scott Fitzgerald obsession, I try not to take it personally. The guy—Fitzgerald, I mean—is sort of an imaginary replacement father for the one she never had. For the one her mother won’t even admit exists, let alone talk about. “Where’d you get that?” I ask, motioning at the book. It’s a brand-new biography of F. Scott.

She plops the book down on a pillow. “Amazon.” She rolls over and leans on her elbow. “Oh, guess what?”

“What?”

“There’s a clue in the robbery. Three separate witnesses saw a man with pointy teeth and gelled hair, wearing a pink-and-blue plaid shirt, acting suspicious in the shop before the jewelry went missing.”

I can’t believe my ears. “That’s him!” I yelp. “The lawyer-pest!”

Her face scrunches up. “The who?”

“The guy that dropped the note at The Terminal. The guy with the missing cat. The guy that took Guy Montag’s mail. He’s working with the koo—” I catch myself. “He’s involved with John Jay Wallace somehow.”

She frowns. “Your neighbor is a terrorist and an arsonist?” she says. “And a lawyer-slash-jewelry-thief is helping him? That’s a little farfetched, don’t you think?”

“He might not actually be a lawyer.”

Aurora laughs. “Oh, okay.” She swings her legs over the side of the bed. “There’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?”

“Huh?”

She springs to her feet. “Let’s go ask him”—she means the kook, I think, since we wouldn’t know where to find the lawyer-pest with a GPS—“what’s going on,” she says, like the idea is obvious. Like we should get even more involved in whatever sinister scheme the kook has cooked up.

For some odd reason—probably because her mother needs the money the jewelry would bring in—I can’t say no. “I guess.” I sigh. “But let me do the talking, okay?”

She rolls her eyes. “We’ll see.”

Chapter 15

The Chadwicks must work sixteen hours a day. And they don’t have a dog, which makes sneaking through their yard easy.

Aurora and I pause at the edge of the kook’s forest and stare. After about a minute, she says, “I’m sweating.”

“I know.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“I wasn’t talking about you.”

“Whatever.” She steps forward. “Ready?”

I follow her as she twists and turns through the trees. It takes longer than before to find the kook’s barn—Aurora is sighing and mumbling and stutter-stepping every now and then—but eventually I glimpse some peeling white paint. “There,” I say, pointing over her shoulder.

“Yup.”

We should probably turn around. Or stop and get our stories straight. Or hatch an escape plan, in case things go wrong. But Aurora is in a hurry, and all I can do is try to keep up.

“What in the world?” Aurora says, as we land at the kook’s open barn door. His laboratory is alive with buzzing and clicking and popping sounds. Gears and pulleys and shaky rollercoaster tracks transport weird objects—like glass balls full of golden glitter-dust—around the perimeter of the barn, never quite ending up anywhere but never really stopping, either.

“I forgot to tell you,” I say, pulling up beside her. “Your friend John is a mad scientist.”

She cocks her head. “Obviously. But why?”

“Good question. Make sure you ask him.”

I grab her arm and steer her toward the kook’s house, in case she’s got any dumb ideas. I mean, the stuff in that barn could be deadly.

“Do you think he’s home?” she asks, giving the door a gentle tap.

“I didn’t see the Camry,” I report. “But it could be underground.”

“Underground?”

I explain about the giant crank and the subterranean garage. Her eyes just blink and blink, like she can’t quite picture it.

She switches from tapping to pounding, but the kook still doesn’t answer. “Should we let ourselves in?”

I swivel my head around like an owl. As far as I can tell, we’re alone. “Yep,” I agree. “But we’d better be quick. Let’s just look for the jewelry and get out of here.”

She nods. “Ten-four.”

A familiar stale, moldy smell greets us as we step through the door. Aurora calls out for the kook, but there’s no answer. “Where should we look?” I ask. If the jewelry is in this newspaper dump, we’re in trouble.

Aurora doesn’t respond. She just leaps over a stack of scattered magazines and heads for the kitchen. But the kitchen is as clean and shiny and empty as before. Unless the jewelry is inside THE IRRADIATOR, it’s not here.

We keep going.

“I’ll check the bedroom,” Aurora says. “You take the bathroom. People love to hide stuff in empty aspirin bottles and toilet paper rolls.”

They do? “Um, okay,” I say. “Just hurry.”

We split up.

Around the corner from the kook’s bedroom is a cluttered bathroom. Damp towels and random clothes—socks, neckties, vests, boxer shorts—are draped everywhere, like dangling moss. I zero in on the medicine cabinet. The kook has six bottles of eye drops, a toothbrush with chewed-up bristles, and a mostly gone tube of antibiotic ointment. But no aspirin. And the only roll of toilet paper is balanced on the windowsill, near the toilet. I look inside the cardboard tube, but it’s empty.

Strike one.

It hits me to check the hamper, which is barfing dirty laundry onto the radiator. I hold my breath and sift through the gross stuff, hoping to hear some metal clanging around. Because if I can find the jewelry ASAP, we can get out of here before the kook catches us.

I’m nearing the bottom of the pile, when something bites me. “Ow,” I mutter, pulling back my hand. On the meaty part of my thumb is a big, red pinch mark. I think about stealing some of the kook’s ointment, but there’s no time. So I carefully reach back into the hamper with my other hand.

Eyeglasses. Silver eyeglasses, exactly like the ones the lawyer-pest was wearing. My thumb must’ve gotten trapped in the hinge.

Well, that proves one thing, I guess: the kook and the lawyer-pest are partners in crime.

I set the glasses on the sink and finish investigating the hamper. It’s clean—of stolen jewelry, anyway. But when I push back the shower curtain, I spot something incriminating: a pastel-colored plaid shirt, hanging on the showerhead.

It’s not pink and blue, like the witnesses described. More like sea-foam green and orange creamsicle. But it can’t be a coincidence. And if the lawyer-pest’s stuff is hanging around the kook’s bathroom, he—the lawyer-pest, I mean—just might live here.

My head is swimming with confused thoughts, making Aurora’s voice seem light years away. “Ralph! Ralph! I’ve got something!”

Please let the “something” be five thousand dollars’ worth of stolen jewelry, so we can sneak it back into the thrift shop when no one’s looking. (Aurora has a soft spot for John Jay Wallace and made me promise not to turn him in to the police, even if he ends up being guilty.)

I snatch the shirt and meet her in the hall. Instead of cupping a handful of sparkly jewels, she’s waving around a white business envelope. I recognize it right away: Guy Montag’s mail.

“Look,” I say, holding up the shirt.

She slaps the envelope against my chest. “It’s empty,” she proclaims, in a triumphant voice.

“Did you find the jewelry?”

“Does it look like I found it?”

Okay, dumb question. I’m about to suggest abandoning the search—we’ve done all we can for now—but then . . .

Thunk! goes the front door.

My stomach drops to my feet.

“Shoot,” whispers Aurora. “He’s back.”

I wonder which “he” it is. The kook may be nuts, but the lawyer-pest scares the life out of me with those jagged razor-teeth and reptilian algae-eyes.

I ditch the shirt like it’s a hot potato. “Window,” I mouth.

Aurora nods vigorously.

We tiptoe to the kook’s bedroom, listening for signs that we’re being followed, like footsteps (check), rustling newspapers (check), and heavy breathing (check). Surprisingly, I shove the window open without unleashing a chorus of alarms.

The footsteps grow louder. There’s no telling if they belong to the kook or the lawyer-pest—or maybe someone worse. “Go,” I tell Aurora, shooing her toward the window.

She peers outside and grimaces. “That’s a long way—”

“Just go!”

She launches herself feetfirst into the kook’s moat-yard. Guy Montag’s ragged envelope lands softly beside her.

I’ve got one leg out the window, when . . . “Ralph Truman Jr.,” says the kook, charging into the room in full military gear, including that ridiculously inappropriate ski mask. (It’s eighty degrees outside, for Pete’s sake!) “Stop right there.”

Really? He expects me to hang around with my leg out the window? “Um . . .”

“Do not—I repeat, do not—move a muscle. Or I’ll be forced to—”

“Shoot me?”

“Shoot you?” He chuckles. “Don’t be absurd.”

“Call the cops?”

“You’re grasping at straws, now, aren’t you?”

Oh, yeah. I forgot: he’s afraid of the police. “Then what?” I ask, my leg—the one holding my entire body weight—starting to twitch. “What are you going to do to me?”

He trots over and holds out his good arm. I take it and steady myself, then hop my dangling leg back inside. “Wrong question,” says the kook, his steel eyes glistening. “It’s what you’re going to do for me that counts.”

Suicide mission. I’ve got a bad feeling he’s going to strap a bomb—maybe one made of that fertilizer Aurora and I helped him buy—to my chest and march me into an airport or a shopping mall or some other crowded place to prove his twisted point, whatever that is.

“Isn’t there someone else that can—?” I ask, meaning the lawyer-pest. If the saw-toothed liar lives here, the least he can do is help the kook with his evil plan. And they can leave me out of it. I mean, the only thing I’ve done wrong is live next door; poor Aurora is innocent completely.

“Nope,” says the kook. “You’re it.” His hollow gray eyes cut into me. “Can I trust you?”

I’m racking my brain for reasons he shouldn’t. But overall I’m a pretty trustworthy guy, so nothing is coming to mind. “I’m no good at keeping secrets,” I say.

He squeezes my arm. “Why? Have you told someone something? What did you say?”

Aurora’s voice is suddenly coming from the wrong direction. “Oh, relax,” she says, slipping back into the kook’s room. (She must’ve gone around the house and let herself in again. But why would she do that, when she’d already gotten away?) “Nobody said anything to anyone. He’s just nervous, okay?”

“I’m not nervous,” I claim.

“Yes, you are,” says the kook. Before I can argue with him, some sort of hoof-pounding music—it sounds like the theme song from The Lone Ranger—starts pulsing out of his camo pants.

“What’s that?” I ask.

Aurora: “I believe it’s the William Tell Overture.

Not what I meant, exactly.

The kook whips a cell phone out of his pocket. “Excuse me,” he says, practically running Aurora over as he bolts out the door.

As soon as he’s gone, I blurt, “What are you doing?”

Aurora shrugs. “I didn’t want to leave you alone, in case—”

“No offense,” I say, “but I can take care of myself.”

“Fine.” She rolls her eyes.

I stand up straighter. “It is fine.”

“Good.”

“Good.”

We cross our arms and stare at each other. For once, Aurora cracks first. “We should probably”—she jerks her head at the door—“go, right?”

The kook’s voice booms down the hallway. “Wrong!” He storms back into the bedroom and demands our cell phones. I say mine’s next door, which is true. Aurora makes a million excuses for why she needs to keep hers, but the kook doesn’t buy any of them. He just dissects her phone on the cold, stainless-steel counter like he’s performing brain surgery, probably so the thing can’t be tracked when we go missing.

My heart races and my head pounds. How are we going to get away now?

I could kick him below the belt. Or jam my fingers into his shifty gray eyeballs. Or . . . or . . .

I’m running attack scenarios in my head, when Aurora blatantly asks the kook, “Did you steal two rings, a necklace, and a diamond tennis bracelet from This Old Thing?” (That’s the name of her mom’s thrift shop.)

His eyes shrivel up like raisins. “I most certainly did not.”

“Do you know who did?” she asks. (She’s hinting at the lawyer-pest being the culprit, I think.)

The kook shakes his head. “Enough of this petty nonsense,” he says. “Reverend Bane is waiting.”

We don’t get a chance to ask about this “Reverend Bane”—is he talking about the lawyer-pest or a religious dude or someone else?—because the kook is suddenly shoving disguises at us (actually, they’re just ugly clothes that don’t fit) and telling us to change. While we do, he switches from his military gear to biker clothes, with a bandana over his face and a leather skullcap on his head. As always, only his eyes are showing.

When we get outside, I’m half expecting to see a sidecar motorcycle. But instead, the Camry is our chariot. And this time the kook wants to drive.

Chapter 16

If Aurora thought my driving was bad, she must be terrified by the kook’s. I mean, the worst I did was bump her leg and cut off some traffic—oh, and nail the gas instead of the brake, almost plunging us through the front window of the hardware store.

The kook has me beat by a mile. And not because of his limp arm, either. His normal arm is the problem, the way it’s seesawing the wheel back and forth for no reason whatsoever. If we were on a ship, we would’ve capsized by now.

The kook’s legs are out of control, too. He’s jamming on the gas and the brake at the same time. Which means we’re in a real-life game of bumper cars, only the other cars have miraculously avoided hitting us—so far.

“How much longer?” asks Aurora. “I don’t feel good.”

The kook swerves onto the shoulder of the road and then back across the center line, into oncoming traffic. “Quiet. I’m thinking.”

I guess he can’t do two things at once. Or one thing, even.

“She’s sick,” I say, feeling queasy myself. “Can you roll down a window?” I’ve already tried the switch on the armrest, but it’s dead. Probably the kook has disabled it, to keep us from escaping.

“Too risky,” says the kook. Which is funny, considering how he’s nearly killed us ten times in the last half hour.

I glance over my shoulder at Aurora. Her head is resting on the door. And her skin is a weird yellowish green color. I take off the fedora. “Here,” I say, shoving it between the seats. “In case you have to throw up.”

Her eyes flutter. “Thanks,” she says, cradling the fedora in her lap. A few seconds later, she makes a gagging sound. I’m sure she’s erupting, but it’s just the dry heaves.

The kook turns down a dirt road. I figure he’s pulling over to let Aurora out for some fresh air. But then I spot a small white chapel up ahead, stuck on the side of a hill. Pacing around out front is a tall guy with a giraffe’s neck, dressed in shiny black shoes and black pants and a black button-down shirt with one of those notched white priest collars. He’s twitchy and nervous looking, with his eyes darting around everywhere. He might even be wringing his hands.

Must be the reverend. The lawyer-pest is nowhere in sight.

Even though the road is full of bumps and ruts—and Aurora is on the verge of spewing all over the Camry’s soft gray interior (or at least in the kook’s favorite hat)—the kook squeals up to the chapel like he’s a Hollywood stunt driver, throwing a cloud of dust so thick we can barely see out the windows. “Wait here,” he says, jumping out of the car and disappearing in the fog.

“Are you okay?” I ask Aurora.

“What do you think?”

I get a weird urge to rub her leg, but I can’t quite reach. “Should I do something?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Steal the car? Get us out of here?”

“Do you smell that?”

“Um”—I give the air a sniff—“yeah. Something . . . burning?”

“Burnt.” She groans some more. “Like spent charcoal.”

I glance at the ignition. “He left the keys,” I say. “We could take off.”

She shakes her head and curls up in a ball. The dust outside has settled, so I try scanning for the kook. But he’s gone. And so is the reverend.

After what seems like an hour of Aurora whimpering (really, it’s been about five minutes), I can’t take it anymore. “I’m going to see what the holdup is,” I say. When I reach for the door handle, I expect it to be locked. I mean, leave it to the kook to use child-safety technology to his advantage. But the door just glides open.

It’s a good thing Aurora stayed in the car, because the charred smell is twice as bad outside. She would’ve been puking for sure. Even I’m gagging on the sharp, grainy taste in the air.

As I approach the chapel, my throat clogs with gooey saliva. I have no choice but to hock a loogie in the grass.

I’m considering knocking on the arched door, but I don’t think you’re supposed to make noise at church, like at the library. Plus, as far as I know, anyone is welcome in the House of God, which makes knocking unnecessary. That’s what I’m hoping, anyway, as I drag the door open and slip inside.

The front section of the chapel is like a lobby, with red-and-gold diamond-patterned carpeting and curvy, high-backed benches on the walls.

For some reason, I picture a gang of muscle-y dudes stopping here to tie their shoes before hoisting a coffin through the doorway to the chapel.

Back to reality.

The lobby is empty. I glance ahead to the chapel itself. There are six white pews, three on each side of a narrow aisle, with a small raised platform—the altar, I guess—opposite them. On the back wall of the chapel, above the altar, is a stained-glass picture of a dove with outstretched wings, bursting out of a flaming sun.

The kook and the reverend are hunched together in the left front pew, whispering nervously. I don’t dare interrupt them, so I drop to my knees and crawl along the wall, until I’m a pew and a half away.

I’m trying to overhear what they’re saying—they’re talking about something being “destroyed” (they’re repeating that word over and over again), and the kook is pushing the reverend to “go to phase two,” like they’ve planned—when my nose starts tickling. Before I can stop it, a violent sneeze explodes.

“Oops,” I say, slamming my hand over my mouth. But it’s too late; the kook has spotted me.

He jumps up and grabs my collar with his good arm, lifting me off the floor. “What’re you doing?” he demands, shaking me around like a rag doll. “I told you to stay in the car.”

“Please, John,” says the reverend, patting the kook’s shoulder. “This won’t solve anything. Let him go.”

The kook’s eyes flash with anger, but he does what the reverend says.

“I wasn’t spying,” I mumble, even though it’s a lie. I straighten out my shirt. “Aurora’s sick. I didn’t know where you went.”

The reverend offers me and Aurora (the kook reluctantly fetches her from the Camry, on the reverend’s orders) some ginger ale from the chapel’s small upstairs kitchen. We’re tucked in a windowless pantry, sipping from our cans while the kook and the reverend argue next door.

“What do you think they’re talking about?” I ask Aurora, whose face is actually starting to look human again instead of borderline zombieish.

“How should I know?” Her shoulders pop up. “He seems nice, though.”

I can’t argue with that. The reverend has been kind and helpful, which is more than I can say for the kook. “Maybe he’ll call your mother,” I suggest.

Aurora grimaces. “I hope not.”

We go back and forth over whose mother would be more understanding. I think it’s hers, since Mom and Kip are fighting. But her mother is stressed out about the stolen jewelry, so it’s a tossup.

I press my ear to the wall, trying to eavesdrop on the reverend and the kook; meanwhile, Aurora picks through the items on the shelf beside her. “Hmm,” she says, tugging a cookbook out from between two fingerprinted canisters. She flips through it. “Weird.”

“Shh.”

“Jeez,” she says. “Relax.”

“I’m trying to hear—”

“Look.” She shoves the book in my face. “Recognize anything?”

She must be feeling better, because she’s annoying me about as much as usual. “What?”

She stabs the page with her finger. “Here,” she says. “The handwriting.”

There’s no mistaking the kook’s exclamation-point-littered chicken scratch. But why is it in a cookbook in the reverend’s pantry? “Lemme see,” I say, taking the book from her.

It’s not a cookbook, after all. It’s a gardening book—or, actually, a botany book, with detailed information on tons of exotic plants. Some of the text is in Latin, especially the plant names.

Maybe this explains that Latin-English dictionary Aurora is so fond of.

“So, what do you think?” asks Aurora, peeking over my shoulder.

“Feeling better?” I say.

“Kind of.”

“Good. Because I’ve got some bad news.”

She laughs uncomfortably. “Like what?”

The kook and the reverend are still arguing next door, so I don’t have to lower my voice. “Poison,” I say. “He must be planning a biological attack.” The proof is right here, in scribbled blue ink:

Castor bean.

Hemlock.

Mistletoe. (Apparently, the berries can kill you.)

Nightshade.

Oleander.

Rosary pea.

They’ve all been circled and underlined and decorated with the kook’s empty-cube doodles. And according to the book, they’re all fatal to humans if ingested in the right—or wrong—way.

The thought of the kook—and maybe even the reverend—murdering a bunch of innocent people is making me woozy. Or else it’s the ginger ale. I look closer at the can and notice bits of white powder clinging to the opening.

Uh-oh. Has the kook poisoned Aurora and me?

Through wobbly, funhouse eyes, I watch Aurora tip toward the wall and slump to the floor. When I try asking if she’s okay, my mouth won’t work and my legs are jelly and my heart is beating so slow it might as well stop.

I drop the book. The floor comes at me like a cold fist. Everything goes dark.

Chapter 17

When I wake up, I feel like I’ve been underwater for a long time. Like my throat has grown gills and my toes are webbed together. And my head is so light and empty that it doesn’t seem to exist at all, like someone has smudged it out with a fat, pink eraser.

Somehow I still recognize the inside of the kook’s car, though. “Where are we?” I mutter, grinding my knuckles into my eyes. It’s almost dark outside, and the car is surrounded by trees. If I didn’t know better, I’d say we’re in the kook’s yard. But the forest is too thick.

“Sorry, kid,” says the kook, his bandana-mask fluttering as he talks, “but it couldn’t be avoided.”

“Huh?”

“Had to be done,” he says. I think he means drugging us, but I’m not sure. “Things have taken a turn.”

My seat is leaned back. I struggle to sit up. A soft purring sound in the backseat catches my ear. I peer around the headrest and see Aurora snoring, with her arms flung out at her sides and a river of drool leaking down her chin.

“What things? What kind of turn?” He’d better not be dragging us into something criminal.

He sighs and then, after a long silence, says, “You’re better off not knowing. Trust me, kid.”

I snort in disbelief. “We have a right to know why you’re . . . you’re . . . kidnapping us.” I cut another glance at the backseat. “When is she going to wake up?”

The kook shrugs. “I must’ve overestimated her body weight. Don’t worry, though. The sedative is very safe. One of the safest. She’s at minimal risk. Nearly zero. Of course, nothing is foolproof, but—”

Anger bubbles in my gut. Who does he think he is, risking Aurora’s life? “We’re not helping you,” I declare. “So you might as well let us go. If you’re lucky, we won’t tell the police.”

The sun is clinging to the horizon, making the trees glow like birthday candles. As far as I can tell, we’re off-road in the woods, someplace where no one could spot us if they tried.

I wonder if anyone is trying to find us. We haven’t been missing too long; maybe no one even knows we’re gone yet.

“Give me forty-eight hours,” the kook pleads, his ash-gray eyes heavy and sad. “After that, you can say anything you want to the authorities.”

By the way he’s talking, he’s got a suicide-bombing mission planned.

“No.” I cross my arms over my chest. “Take us back. Now.” Aurora starts grunt-talking. I twist around and nudge her knee. “Aurora. Hey, Aurora. It’s Ralph. Wake up.”

The kook’s eyes glint. “She likes you, you know.”

What kind of mind games is he playing? “Yeah, sure,” I say, brushing him off and refocusing on Aurora, who’s blinking back to life.

Her voice is soft and crackly. “Ralph? What—?”

“Everything’s fine.” I shoot a death glare at the kook. “Right, John?”

“Oh, yes. More than fine. In fact, the young Ralph Truman Jr. here has just agreed to help me with some very important research. Isn’t that right, Ralph?”

I’m speechless.

Aurora wrestles her way to a sitting position. “What kind of research?” She takes in the woods. “How did we get here?” she asks, furrowing her brow.

“Environmental,” says the kook. “Critical, top-secret environmental research. Experiments that have the potential to . . . to . . . save the world.”

He sure is laying it on thick. “It’s getting dark, though,” I protest. “Shouldn’t we start this ‘research’ tomorrow? After we get some sleep?” Forget the fact that Aurora and I have been out cold for God knows how long already.

“You’re right,” says the kook. For a second, I think he’s going to take us home. But he’s not. “We’ll rest until daybreak. There are emergency blankets in the trunk. We’ll start with clear heads, first thing in the morning.”

Aurora smiles and nods.

The kook hits the trunk-release button and motions for me to get out of the car. Reluctantly, I retrieve the “emergency blankets,” which are actually thin, crinkly, metallic things that have more in common with aluminum foil than cotton or wool.

Oh, well. At least it’s summer. We should survive fine overnight. Maybe tomorrow, when we’ve got hours of daylight ahead of us, we can find a way to escape the kook’s twisted research project.

At least I hope we can.

  1. # #

Somehow the kook’s skullcap and bandana stay perfectly in place overnight. But when his eyes crack open, something frightening hits me: one of them is its normal, hazy gray self, but the other one is greenish blue, like pond scum.

Or algae.

Why does the kook have two different-colored eyes? And why does the right one look suspiciously like the lawyer-pest’s? Just thinking about the possibilities—like, did the kook kill the lawyer-pest and steal his eyeball?—gives me the chills. If the kook did kill the lawyer-pest, it would explain why the lawyer-pest’s shirt and glasses are in the kook’s bathroom. I mean, a dead guy doesn’t exactly need to dress himself anymore, does he?

Maybe the kook is going to kill us, too, after we help him with his “research.”

“Do you have any food?” I ask the kook, once he’s straightened up and alert. “I’m starving.” My stomach has been growling like an angry bear for the last hour.

The kook doesn’t answer. He just goes to the trunk and rattles some stuff (a pound of crispy bacon and a stack of French toast, I’m hoping) around.

Aurora perks up. “It’s so sunny,” she says, squinting and blinking out the window.

She’s right. Even with all the trees, it’s like we’re in a laser-beam spotlight. Which means we can’t stay in the car, unless we want to roast like Thanksgiving turkeys.

We join the kook outside. He’s staring into the trunk, steadying a backpack with his floppy hand while his good hand unzips it. He plucks out two brown plastic pouches. “Spaghetti and meatballs,” he says, “or franks and beans?”

At first I don’t get what he means. There’s not a spaghetti noodle or a hotdog in sight. But then I remember a documentary I saw once about astronaut food. The stuff came in plastic pouches, like the ones the kook has. Some of it was even freeze-dried, which means they freeze it (duh) and then suck out all the ice. To eat it, you have to add water back in again.

The kook’s pouches don’t look freeze-dried, though. They’re too full.

The kook impatiently waves the pouches around. “They’re perfectly edible. Irradiated. Thermostabilized. Delicious.”

Now we know what THE IRRADIATOR is for, I guess: preparing the kook’s mad-scientist buffet.

Aurora takes the spaghetti and meatballs, so I’m stuck with the franks and beans. The kook can’t find any forks, so we squeeze the “food”—it’s hard to think of the clumpy, beige stuff as anything but dog chow—into our mouths and try not to breathe as we gulp it down.

The food hits my stomach like a boulder. Halfway through her pouch, Aurora starts turning green again. But at least neither of us is hungry. And we probably won’t be for a long, long time.

The kook slurps down a pouch of something, too. Then he hands out more pouches, which are full of water. We’re too thirsty to turn them down. Plus, they help wash away the taste of the “food.”

Out of nowhere, Aurora asks the kook, “Since when do you have a green eye?” She only met the lawyer-pest once, so she’s not putting two and two together. Or else she’d be a lot more freaked out.

“Excuse me?” the kook says.

“Your eyes. One is gray and one is green.”

“Yeah,” I say. “She’s right.”

“Incorrect.”

Aurora shakes her head. “Are those, like, colored contact lenses?”

“You’re imagining things,” claims the kook. But he marches over to the Camry’s side mirror to see for himself. When he’s done wiggling his eye skin up and down and examining himself like he’s a space alien, he turns back around and—voila!—both of his eyes are gray again.

Spooky.

“What the—?” drones Aurora.

“See,” says the kook. I get the feeling he’s grinning under that bandana-mask. “I told you so.”

Chapter 18

The kook is trying to keep our location a secret, but from the altitude (my ears are popping) and the faint roar of tires in the distance, I’m pretty sure we’re on Mount Washington, where Dad took me on his Harley. Which means there’s hope of Aurora and me being rescued.

Not if we hike any deeper into the woods, though. Then we’ll probably end up dead, even though the kook keeps checking a compass and staring at the sun and licking his finger and holding it in the wind, like the air currents are going to tell us which way to go to complete his mysterious research project.

“How are we going to find the car?” I ask, squinting back down the mountainside. “I can’t even see it anymore.” Actually, that’s a lie. A small silver patch—a fraction of the Camry’s fender, probably—is still visible, at least for now.

The kook is breathing hard under that bandana. And his skullcap is soaked with sweat. Some of it—the sweat, I mean—is dribbling down the side of his face, onto his ear area.

Gross.

It’s a good thing he’s got that bandana tied so high up on his head, so we don’t have to watch the sweat eat its way through his ear hair. (I’ve never actually seen his ears, but I assume they’re stuffed with bristly growth.)

“Psh,” says the kook. “Unless an earthquake or a tornado or . . . or . . . a flood of biblical proportions hits out of the clear blue sky”—he’s right about the weather being close to perfect, with loads of sun and a light breeze and a bunch of leafy shade—“we’re in no danger of—” He stops dead, putting a finger to his mouth area, like we should be as quiet as sock puppets all of a sudden.

I stop.

Aurora stops. “What are we doing?”

The kook stares daggers at her.

If you ask me, the guy needs to work on his communication skills. I don’t bother telling him so, though, because he might be right about something for a change.

From down by the Camry come the twig-crunching sounds of footsteps and the scratchy echoes of hushed voices. Then the unmistakable creak of car doors opening and closing.

Was the kook dumb enough to leave the Camry unlocked? Or has someone else—maybe someone looking for Aurora and me—brought a second vehicle out here to no-man’s-land?

I lock eyes with Aurora. She doesn’t seem like she’s about to yell for help or anything. Which I don’t get, since the kook brought us here against our will.

Then again, maybe the kidnapping wasn’t against Aurora’s will. Maybe she thinks she’s in a cool adventure story, like the ones she’s always checking out of the library. Or the ones she’s making up in her head, while I’m dealing with cold, hard, annoying reality.

The murderous look in the kook’s eyes is the reason I don’t yell. Or move a muscle. Or even breathe, hardly.

After a few minutes, the twig-crunching sounds die off and the voices fade away. Finally, the kook says, “How are you at subterfuge?”

Subter-what? Even Aurora looks stumped, and she’s read a million books and has the largest vocabulary of anyone I know, except Mom.

“Deceit, trickery, creating distractions,” the kook says. “Do you possess any acting skills?” He eyeballs us from top to bottom, looking disappointed.

“For what?” asks Aurora.

I just shrug.

“It appears we’re being tracked,” says the kook. “I was afraid this would happen, but the reverend—” He shakes his head. “Never mind. Just do what you’re told, and follow my lead. The future of the planet may depend on it.”

Aurora and I roll our eyes, but the kook doesn’t notice.

As we trudge up the mountain, we stop every now and then to listen for sneaks or spies or whoever the kook thinks is tailing us. But all we hear are squirrels scampering and leaves rustling and crows cawing. Once I think I hear the tick-tick-tick of a woodpecker, but it’s just a massive tree creaking and groaning.

I’m starting to wonder if we really are on Mount Washington, since we haven’t seen any other hikers. But maybe we’re just too far off the trails (if I know the kook, he’s taking a roundabout route to the middle of nowhere) to run into anyone.

The terrain is steep and rocky and full of scraggly tree roots and rotting logs. A bunch of trees are tipped over, too, blocking our path. Aurora complains about having to climb over them with bare legs, but the kook says that nicks and scrapes are good for the immune system. That assaulting the body is “constitution building” (whatever that means) and “invigorates the lifeblood.”

What do they call people who enjoy pain? Because I think the kook might be one of them.

Even with the altitude and the leaf cover, it’s getting uncomfortably hot outside—or at least uncomfortably hot for extreme hiking. Plus, the kook’s lame arm is making me nervous. I mean, what if he trips—Aurora and I are stumbling quite a bit ourselves—and can’t catch himself with only one good arm? He could end up with a severe head wound or worse, if he goes down at the wrong angle. Then Aurora and I will get eaten by coyotes or bears or mountain lions for sure.

“Can we take a break?” I ask, when I notice the kook’s legs starting to wobble.

“Yeah,” says Aurora. “I have to pee.”

The kook grumbles, “Make it snappy. We’ve got work to do.”

Aurora tromps off in a huff. Once she’s disappeared into the trees, the kook motions at his backpack. “Unzip me.”

I don’t bother replying; I just tug the zipper from one side of the bag to the other.

“Get some water,” he orders. “We need to stay hydrated.”

The kook is taller than me by a few inches. I get up on my toes and paw around inside the bag. “Are we on Mount Washington?” I ask casually, extracting a squishy, liquid-y feeling pouch.

“Who told you that?”

“No one.”

“Mind your own business, then.”

I want to argue with him, but it’s a waste of time. “Here,” I say, shoving the pouch around to his limp side.

He laughs. “Thanks anyway, kid. But I’m a human camel. Spent four years in the desert, living off rainwater—and it don’t exactly rain much in the desert—and cactus fruit. It’s all yours.”

Something rings a bell about the gravesite we robbed. Wasn’t John Jay Wallace in a war? In the desert? Maybe the kook isn’t lying about everything, after all.

I’m halfway through the water, when Aurora comes fighting through a knot of branches. Every time she pushes them aside, they whip back at her face. “Ouch! Ow! Ow!” she mutters. “Sheesh!” By the time she reaches us, there’s a checkerboard of scratches on her cheek.

That should make the kook happy.

I give Aurora the rest of the water, which the kook makes her drink while charging full-steam ahead. We must’ve climbed a mile by now. A mile farther from civilization. I can’t even hear those humming tires (if they really were tires) anymore.

Which makes my stomach hurt. Because even if the kook doesn’t kill us, there are a million ways to die in the woods. And I don’t exactly want some hungry wolf flossing its teeth with my thigh bone. Or Aurora’s. Or even the kook’s.

We trudge along in silence for the next five minutes, the terrain getting steeper and rockier—we’re walled in on both sides by boulders the size of cars—until I don’t think the kook can make it any farther, the way he’s huffing and puffing and grunting and groaning and tipping from side to side like a drowning ship. Once, he gasps so hard I’m sure he’ll have to take off that bandana and show us his face.

But he doesn’t. He just slows to a crawl until his breathing evens out. And by then, we’re at the crest of a hill, anyway, looking down on a treacherous descent. And—oh, great—there’s a rushing stream at the base of the hill, full of jagged tree limbs and rock-islands.

How are we going to cross that thing, if we even make it down there in the first place?

Aurora puts her hands on her hips and squints at the stream. “You can’t be serious.”

The kook: “Quite, actually.”

“Uh-uh,” I say, giving Aurora some backup. “We’re not going down there. It’s too dangerous.”

“Sorry, but you’ve got no choice,” says the kook. “I’m the only one who knows the way out of here.” His eyes grin diabolically.

He has a point. Which ticks me off. “I hope they arrest you,” I blurt. “Because this is . . . this is . . . blackmail.”

“It’s more like coercion,” says Aurora, “since he’s not asking for money or anything.”

The kook’s bandana flutters, like he might be laughing. “Call it what you will,” he says. “But your cooperation is imperative.”

I plant my feet in the crevices between the rocks. “What happens to your secret environmental research if we all die? Have you thought about that?”

“I will consider no such thing,” replies the kook.

“Well, I’m not going first,” I say, imagining myself tumbling to an early grave. Aurora and the kook probably won’t even be able to drag my body out of here, if the worst happens.

Aurora to the kook: “You should go ahead.” She shrugs. “It’s only fair.”

The kook mutters something about Aurora and me being crybabies and him being better off without us. Then he sits down on the ground, like he’s having a temper tantrum.

But he’s not. Instead, he starts scooting down the hill on his butt.

I’ve done that before, with a pillow on the staircase at home. Dad calls it “stair sledding.” But the kook looks ridiculous, bumping and wincing (I bet those rocks are bruising him pretty bad) along little by little, until he’s almost to the bottom of the hill.

Aurora and I wait. And watch. And wait some more. “We could turn around,” I suggest. “There’s no way he can catch us now.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Actually—”

“I mean, don’t you want to know what’s out there?” she asks, waving at the mountainside.

The kook keeps scuttling along.

“We already know more than—”

“Someday, Ralph, you’ll learn to—” She takes a step down the hill. “Oh, look,” she says. “He made it.”

I lean forward. Sure enough, the kook is standing at the base of the hill, inches from the stream, with his head cocked and a triumphant look about him. “Awesome,” I groan.

“C’mon,” says Aurora. “Don’t make me do this alone.” Even though she’s acting brave and go-with-the-flow, she must really be afraid—at least a little.

I say, “Yeah, yeah,” and join her on the rocky descent. We get four steps under our belts, before something splashes in the water below. I figure it’s a tree branch giving way.

But I figure wrong.

Chapter 19

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!” squeals Aurora, when she sees that the kook has slipped off the rocks and landed in the stream. He’s clinging to a log with his good arm and hollering garbled nonsense up the hill between gasping breaths, as the water races over him.

I yell back at him to hold on. Which is all I can do right now, because of being stuck on this perilous descent. Aurora wants us to go faster, so we can try to save the kook’s life. But that might kill us, and then the kook is a goner, too.

So we take our time, even though it’s hard and feels wrong and makes me think of a story from the news last winter about a guy falling through the ice. This guy was screaming for help, but another guy on the shore could only call 911 and push a tree branch out to the first guy, or else he—the second guy—would’ve fallen through, too. I wish I could say the story had a happy ending, but it didn’t.

Maybe we can move a little quicker.

Aurora keeps encouraging the kook by yelling stuff like, “You can do it!” and “Just a few more seconds!” even though it takes us three or four minutes to reach the bottom of the hill.

Somehow the kook keeps holding on, until we’re stuttering around the edge of the stream (actually, it might be a river, with all the force pushing the water along), trying to figure out how to reach him without drowning ourselves.

“What do we do?” asks Aurora in a panicked voice, her eyes searching my face for the answer.

My mind is empty. And my feet are welded to the ground. But my blood is pumping so hard it feels like it might burst out of my veins. I have to do something. Anything.

The kook’s life-preserver log is wedged between a rock-island and the shore. When the water gets rough—and the kook thrashes around—the log shifts, like it’s about to go floating down the river, taking the kook with it.

Luckily, I’m a pretty good swimmer, since I might end up getting washed away, too.

The water is shockingly cold. I only get a few steps in before my feet start going numb. I have to mentally talk my legs into moving, which they must be doing, since I’m making slow progress toward the kook.

Another lucky thing? The kook hasn’t drifted too far from shore. Maybe twelve feet, total. And even with numb legs, I can slosh that far. Except that the currents keep pushing me off course, making the process take longer than it should.

I wonder how the water can be so cold in July. We must be higher up on the mountain than I thought.

The kook is moaning and groaning and maybe even crying (it’s hard to tell, with that water splashed all over his face), while my mouth is making uncontrollable chattering sounds.

For a moment, the currents ease. Soon I’m within striking distance of the kook, whose pale gray eyes are desperate and afraid. His skullcap is cockeyed and threatening to slide off, exposing his greasy—or maybe just wet—hair. But his bandana is still stuck to his face like it’s sewn on.

“Gimme your hand!” I shout, grabbing for the kook as soon as he’s within reach.

He scowls at his arm, which is pale and shriveled and looks like it belongs on a corpse. And that’s his good arm.

Aurora yells, “Give him a piggyback! He can’t let go, or he’ll drown!”

She’s right. With the kook only having one good arm, he can’t exactly release the log to grab my hand. I mean, what if he misses?

I struggle around the rock-island to the other side of the log, where the kook is clinging like a barnacle. The water was waist high before, but now I’m up to my neck. I hold my breath and lift off the river bottom, dog-paddling the last few feet to the kook’s side.

When I shove in next to him, the kook’s eyes shine with relief. “Okay,” I say, gasping. “Hold on to my neck.” I jam in between him and the log and curl his cold, stiff arm around my throat, like he’s got me in a choke hold.

I just hope he can stay like that.

For the first few strokes (I’m doing my best to swim with a human anchor around my neck), he sticks with me pretty good. But then his arm starts slipping, and all I can do is pray for a miracle. Or some solid ground under my feet, which is coming up fast.

Not fast enough, though. As my sneaker reaches for the river bottom, the kook’s arm flies off my neck in one swift move, like he let go on purpose. But from the way he’s flopping around like a dying fish, I doubt that.

“Quick!” screeches Aurora. She hops up and down—which she shouldn’t do on wet rocks, unless she wants to join the kook and me in the river—and cups her hands around her mouth. “He’s going under!”

I’m too cold and slow to catch him. He slips underwater. My mind is jumbled. I can’t think of what to do next, except grab the kook’s leg, which is floating to the surface like a dead body.

He’s not dead yet, though. When I reach for his ankle, he kicks me. Or maybe he’s just trying to get himself upright again.

It doesn’t matter what he’s doing, because we’re running out of time. And I don’t want his blood on my hands. I lock on to his ankle and tow him back to shore, with his head underwater and his arms—the limp one and the nearly limp one—bobbing along behind us.

Aurora helps me drag the kook onto the rocks. His eyes are closed and he’s motionless. I can’t tell if he’s alive, because his chest isn’t going up and down, like it should be if he’s breathing.

The kook’s skullcap must’ve come off in the water, because his hair is swished to one side and plastered to his head. Before I can stop her, Aurora yanks the bandana off his face.

The kook looks familiar, like somehow I knew his face all along. Like my mind was filling in the blanks of what my eyes couldn’t see. At least that’s what I’m thinking, until the kook starts choking and coughing and then, once his lungs are clear, sits up as straight as an arrow and flashes a piranha smile.

I swallow hard to keep from throwing up.

  1. # #

“Thanks, kid,” says the kook—or the lawyer-pest, depending on which part of my brain I choose to believe. “You did good.” He chuckles. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“Yeah,” says Aurora, who isn’t fazed by the kook’s razor-teeth at all. “That was amazing.”

I blink a couple of times, in case I’m imagining things. But the teeth are still there.

How can the kook and the lawyer-pest have the same mouthful of jagged teeth? My brain grasps for answers, coming up with a few possibilities:

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The kook and the lawyer-pest have the same demented dentist.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. On top of stealing the lawyer-pest’s algae-eye, the kook took the lawyer-pest’s saw-blade teeth and put them in his own mouth.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The kook and the lawyer-pest are vampires. Or maybe . . .

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The kook and the lawyer-pest are twins.

My head is still swimming with questions, when the kook sprouts to his feet and starts winding along the edge of the river, his backpack leaking a trail of water behind him. I can hardly believe it when he stops and says, “Here is good.”

He still wants us to cross the river, after what just happened?

Aurora speaks up, arguing that the spot the kook has picked is too dangerous.

We shouldn’t be doing this at all. But I’m too tired and weighed down (my clothes—especially my soaked sneakers—feel like they’re made of concrete) to put up a fight. So I just follow along, as Aurora and the kook bicker like a cranky old married couple over where we’re going to risk our lives next. Eventually, they settle on a narrow part of the river, where a couple of fallen trees have formed a pretty solid bridge.

I shake my head and cross along with them. We make it to the other side fine. “How much farther?” I ask, when we’ve slogged another ten minutes diagonally uphill. (Since his near-drowning, the kook is taking it easy on us—or maybe himself—by going at an angle instead of straight up.)

The kook stares at the sky. “A little.”

Aurora and I lock eyes. She shoots me a smile and shrugs. I sigh and keep climbing.

For once, the kook is telling the truth. Soon we’re stopping in a small clearing. The kook wiggles out of the soggy backpack and orders us to empty it. We pile the stuff—dog-chow meals and supplies for lighting a fire, plus some blue plastic tarps and a folding saw—off to the side. The kook grabs the saw and says, “Stay here. I’ll be back in—” And then—poof!—he vanishes into the woods.

As soon as he’s gone, I pump Aurora for information about the kook’s identity. Which turns out to be a waste of time. She knows even less about him than I do. And she doesn’t buy any of my “incredible theories” about the kook and the lawyer-pest, either.

I’m too exhausted to argue, so I just plop down on a sunny patch of grass and grab some irradiated “blueberry pie.” I slurp it down and shut my eyes.

The next thing I know (I must’ve fallen asleep), a pterodactyl shriek stabs the air.

Chapter 20

The kook’s secret signal is echoing through the trees. I scan the clearing for Aurora, but she’s MIA. “Great,” I mutter, pacing the edge of the woods. The kook and Aurora have both disappeared, and I have no idea how to find them.

If I had time to think, I’d wonder what has gotten into the kook. But his cries are getting louder and sharper—like the whistling of a teakettle—making my guts twist.

I have to follow his call. Now. I just hope Aurora knows to stay put in the clearing, when she gets back from peeing or wherever.

I give the supplies one last look—should I take something with me, in case I never see anyone again?—before picking a random tree and threading my way into the forest.

Soon I know I’ve made a mistake. Aurora is the one with the bloodhound sense of direction, not me. I couldn’t even find the kook’s house, which is probably only a hundred yards from mine, when I’d been there before.

The kook has stopped shrieking, so I’ve stopped hiking. When the authorities send a search party for my body, at least it’ll be within a reasonable distance of where I was last seen. Mom and Dad will appreciate having me back, I bet, even if I’m in a coffin.

Being stuck in the middle of nowhere has its perks, though. Like endless time to think. I sit on a basketball-sized rock and let my mind wander. Even though you’d expect it to be hatching survival strategies, it’s not. Instead, it goes back to that trip to Disney World Mom, Dad, and I took over spring break. The trip plays like a movie in my head, starting when I squeezed into the middle seat on the plane between Mom and Dad, who were as normal and happy as ever.

My mind clicks ahead one memory at a time, like it’s flipping through a slideshow of that Disney vacation. As hard as I try, I can’t find any proof of Mom or Dad being upset or mad or unhappy.

Then how could everything fall apart so easy?

I jam the tip of my sneaker under a rock and flip it over. Something dark and wet looking—a salamander, maybe—scuttles away. I’m sick of thinking about Mom and Dad’s breakup, so I start turning over every rock in sight, looking for creepy-crawlies. There are a few centipedes and some jumping spiders and a stray worm here and there, but nothing too exciting.

I was hoping for something better, like a snake. The ones around here are pretty harmless, so you don’t have to worry about getting poisoned or anything.

Poison. That gets me thinking about the kook and that weird botany book. I wonder if he’s going to do something evil with the information he underlined about deadly plants. Maybe when—or if—we get off this mountain, I can convince Aurora to let me turn the kook in to the police for drugging and kidnapping us. Then he’ll be behind bars and won’t be able to hurt anyone, even if he wants to.

Does he want to? So far, we don’t have any actual proof. Only a bunch of guesses about fertilizer bombs and maps of mysterious fires and those terrifying razor-teeth and—

“Raaalph!” Aurora is suddenly calling. “Raaalph!”

I yell back to her. Soon we’re playing Marco Polo, until we just about crash into each other. A second later, the kook pops up with a mesh bag thrown over his shoulder. The bag is stuffed with twigs, maybe for starting a fire.

Luckily, the kook knows the way back to the clearing. I half expect the backpack and supplies to be gone, from wild animals or mountain-climbing thieves. But everything is where we left it.

Good. We’re going to need that stuff to get out of here, I have a feeling.

Turns out I’m right about the kook wanting to start a fire, except he doesn’t want to use the twigs he’s collected. Instead, he wants Aurora and me to gather some dry, dead branches that will burn easy. While we do that, he rolls a bunch of rocks together to make a fire pit.

I have to admit, the kook is pretty talented with that one good arm.

Once the branches are arranged, the kook starts burning them with a handheld torch. Even though it’s not too cold outside, the fire feels good, because of my damp clothes. The kook seems to be enjoying it, too, probably for the same reason.

The three of us huddle around the fire, like we’re a family on a camping trip. I can’t stop staring at the kook, because without that bandana, he looks exactly like the lawyer-pest, except for the algae-eyes.

Bizarre.

“Can I ask you something?” Aurora says to the kook.

He studies her for a while. “If you must.”

“What are we doing here? Why did you kidnap us? Who is Reverend Bane? Are you an arsonist? Or a terrorist?” She gasps for breath. “Are you going to kill us?” The kook snickers at that one. “Why do you have all those maps? And those newspapers? Was that really your grave? Who is Sergeant John Jay Wallace? What happened to your arm? Are your eyes really gray? Because they look kind of fake, actually.” She sighs. “When can we go home? I’m tired. Aren’t you tired, Ralph?”

“Mmm,” I say, nodding.

The kook just sits there, warming his feet by the fire, smiling enough to show off those piranha teeth.

I can’t help myself. “And why are your teeth like that?” I ask. “They’re so pointy. They look exactly like the teeth of . . . of the guy from the thrift shop. And the diner. The guy with the missing cat.”

“Guy Montag?” says the kook.

My blood runs cold.

“Yup,” says Aurora. “That’s him.”

“No,” says the kook. “That’s me.”

“Well, now everything makes sense,” Aurora says sarcastically.

I’ve had enough of the kook’s doubletalk, too. I jump up and tower over him. “Listen,” I say, “I saved your life. You owe me”—I wave at Aurora—“you owe both of us an explanation.”

“Settle down, kid.”

“No.”

Aurora stands up next to me. “Yeah,” she says. “You owe us.” When the kook still doesn’t give in, she adds, “If you tell the truth, we might not report you to the police—unless you killed someone or something.”

The kook tells Aurora that she has a runaway imagination, which, usually, I’d agree with. But not this time. Then he asks for a pouch of blueberry pie. When I break the news that I ate it already, his face crumples like a wet tissue.

Aurora finds a pouch of cherry cobbler. The kook seems satisfied. When he’s done slurping it down, he orders us to sit close to him, so no one will hear what he’s about to say. Which is ridiculous and proves just how paranoid he is, since no one is this far out in the woods but us.

We wiggle in next to him, anyway, in case he really is going to reveal something important, instead of talking in circles like he usually does.

He starts with a story about cancer doctors that are close to finding a cure—or maybe even have found a cure—turning up dead in unusual ways, under suspicious circumstances. Then he talks about a guy who invented a special car part fifty years ago that lets you go hundreds of miles on a gallon of gasoline. That guy ended up dead, too, with a bunch of drugs in his body, to make his death look like an accident or a suicide instead of cold-blooded murder. At least that’s what the kook says.

“So who’s murdering cancer doctors and inventors?” asks Aurora.

The kook snorts. “Corporate henchmen, the CIA, rogue mercenaries, secret societies, professional rivals—the possibilities are endless.”

Yeah, okay. “What’s that got to do with—?”

“Don’t rush me,” snaps the kook. “I’m getting to that.”

He goes on for twenty minutes, spouting crazy conspiracy theories about the CIA’s “mind-control experiments” and the government using black men as guinea pigs for researching a deadly disease without giving them the cure, which was just penicillin. He also says that the government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition, killing hundreds of people. And that the CIA helped a “Latin-American guerilla army” sell cocaine to street gangs in Los Angeles, triggering a “crack-cocaine epidemic of astronomic proportions.” He even says that a company that makes baby aspirin used to “peddle heroin to children,” back around 1900.

Really? I doubt it. But by the awed look on Aurora’s face, she’s falling for the kook’s wild stories once again. I guess it’s my job to push for the truth. “But . . . your teeth,” I say, motioning at the kook’s mouth. “How did they get like that?” He’s probably going to say an army of government-controlled vampires injected him with their immortal-monster venom or something.

The kook’s stone-gray eyes dart around. “Diamond files,” he whispers, flashing the evidence.

“You had your teeth filed to spiky points, like . . . like . . .” Aurora covers her mouth, too freaked out to continue.

The kook rolls his eyes. “Certainly not. Do you think I’d trust these beauties”—he means the saw-teeth, I guess—“with just anyone? I completed the work myself. Of course, it took nearly a month of precision crafting. And I might’ve gone a little too Werewolves of London on the canines.” Again, he beams the mouthful of fangs. “What do you think?”

“But, why?” I mutter. Aurora is still speechless.

The kook: “Subversion.”

Seriously, he’s got to start using smaller words. “Okay . . .” I say, motioning for him to elaborate.

“In my line of work”—whatever that is—“you can’t be too careful. For example, if I bite into an apple and that apple falls into the wrong hands, my cover could be blown. See?”

“You think people are going to steal your garbage and compare it to old dental records?” I ask.

“I don’t think; I know.”

“Why would they do that?” asks Aurora.

The kook wastes another ten minutes, regurgitating conspiracy plots and then adding a whole new one, starring himself as a vigilante environmental crusader. He claims he’s invented a “natural additive” that will make the world’s supply of oil “last forever,” giving us “infinite energy to power the future,” without any more “drilling or fracking or otherwise molesting the earth.”

He also says that this natural additive would be “nearly free” and “carbon neutral,” because of its “visionary chemical properties.”

Sounds like a fantasy to me. But he does have that mad-scientist’s laboratory, so you never know.

Aurora and I are sitting around in stunned silence, watching the flames dance in the fire pit and not making eye contact with each other or the kook. Because what can we do? Accuse him of being a maniac? And a liar? Probably not a wise idea, considering how we need him to lead us off this mountain.

“You don’t believe me?” the kook asks, sounding hurt. “That’s fine. Fine,” he says, his nose twitching. “Answer me this, though: if the shadowy forces”—that’s what he calls the imaginary spies that are out to get him—“don’t exist, then why did I have to do this?” His piranha jaw flaps open again. “And this?” he says, digging with his good hand at one eyeball and then the other. “Hmm?”

As soon as I make eye contact with him, my heart starts pounding. Not only does he have the lawyer-pest’s scissor-teeth, but he’s also got the lawyer-pest’s algae-eyes. Both of them this time, not just one like before.

Which can only mean one thing: the kook and the lawyer-pest are the same person.

Chapter 21

The kook’s mouth is like Pandora’s Box. Once we pry it open, a bunch of crazy, unexpected stuff comes flying out. And even though most of his claims are probably lies, they’re cool to listen to, like being in a movie or something.

By the time the kook’s voice starts dying (he’s been talking nonstop for hours), we’ve learned:

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The kook hurt his arm in a chemical explosion, during a failed experiment to create the natural additive. A bunch of his muscles and tendons and nerves got damaged, but his arm survived, even though some chunks are missing out of it.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Like I thought, Guy Montag is one of the kook’s aliases. The kook changes his name every three months, to keep the shadowy forces off his trail.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The maps we found under the kook’s bed show where the ingredients for his natural additive used to grow, before the shadowy forces burnt them down.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Reverend Bane is one of the kook’s old army buddies; he let the kook hide a bunch of special plants on the church’s land, until the shadowy forces showed up yesterday and destroyed them.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. In the forest around his house, the kook has a one-of-a-kind tree that he made by mixing the DNA of a bunch of other trees. He uses the bark (he won’t say exactly how) in his natural additive.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The kook actually is Sergeant John Jay Wallace. And the grave we dug up is his, too. He faked his death in a helicopter crash off the coast of Maui, in the Pacific Ocean. His body was never found (duh), but the helicopter wreckage was. (He won’t say how he pulled that one off, but my gut says it was a right-place-at-the-right-time sort of thing.)

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The trunk Aurora and I stole wasn’t the graveyard trunk at all; the graveyard trunk is full of seeds from an endangered plant (the kook says there are three left in the world) that grew on Mount Carmel—in Israel, where those suspicious fires started—and are the key to his natural additive. The kook hid the seeds in the graveyard, to keep the shadowy forces away from them.

The kook stretches out on his back and stares up at the sky, which is glowing orange. “I suppose you should know about Charlie, too,” he says. And then he’s off again, talking about a giant bird—a relative of an extinct superbird called Argentavis magnificens—that he tracked through the wilds of South America, where even the natives are afraid to go.

He says he knocked the bird out with elephant tranquilizers and plucked a bunch of its feathers, which he grinds up and—you guessed it—uses in his natural additive.

He calls the bird Charlie.

Aurora asks if Charlie is still alive. The kook says that nothing but the apocalypse—or loggers or ranchers or land thieves, which are destroying Charlie’s rainforest habitat—could kill such a marvelous beast.

As soon as the kook brings up the rainforest, Aurora starts rambling on about the Sateré-Mawé tribe and the bullet-ant gloves. Turns out the kook has worn those exact gloves “out of scientific curiosity” and “to partake of local customs.” He says they’re not too painful, even though Aurora says they hurt worse than anything in the world. Which means the kook probably is one of those people that enjoys pain or something.

After all that talking, the kook still hasn’t explained why we’re here. I figure it’s a good time to ask, since his lips can’t seem to stop moving.

The kook answers my question with one word: “Indoctrination.”

I glance sideways at Aurora, hoping she’ll translate the kook’s overblown vocabulary. “He wants us to think like him,” she says.

The kook shakes his head. “Anyone with a functioning cerebral cortex can think. Thinking is impotent, pedestrian, reductionist.” I scan Aurora’s face, but she just grimaces. “Doing is what matters,” declares the kook. “Don’t you agree?”

“I guess,” I say. “But before you can do something, first you have to think about it.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, kid,” says the kook. “Leave the thinking to me. You’re just—excuse my language—a trustworthy bag of bones. I mean, who would suspect a couple of innocent children of being covert operatives?” He chuckles to himself. “It’s genius, actually.”

The kook may be smart—I mean, his laboratory is pretty impressive—but I doubt he’s a genius.

“The point is,” the kook goes on, “that the project needs you. I need you. I’ve been doing this research alone—or nearly so—for too long already. Imagine what would happen if I fell off a cliff.” He shudders. “Or was captured. Or, God forbid, joined the rest of you technology-obsessed zombies in the twenty-first century.

“Nothing would get done! Nothing! The project would wither and die! My entire life’s work—” The kook’s algae-eyes start watering.

“It’s okay,” says Aurora, patting the kook’s shoulder. “We’ll help you.”

I shoot her a sharp look, but it doesn’t take. She’s already pledging her—and my—allegiance to the kook.

“Good,” says the kook, his tears immediately drying up. “Here’s what I need you to do.”

  1. # #

By the time the kook finishes explaining his plan to outwit the shadowy forces, it’s getting dark outside. Which means we’re stuck sleeping in the clearing, since the trek back to the Camry—with all that rocky, watery terrain—would definitely kill us at this time of night.

The fire is spitting and crackling and choking a little, like it wants to burn out. The kook tells Aurora and me to gather some more kindling, to keep us from freezing. Because even though it’s summer, the mountains get cold after sundown.

Actually, it’s downright chilly already.

Aurora and I rush around, grabbing every dried-out branch and twig and miniature log we can find, until we’re crashing into each other like blind beetles. “I think we’re done,” says Aurora.

We drag the pile over to the kook. “So, uh, where are we sleeping?” I ask.

The kook nods at the blue plastic tarps from the soggy backpack. I figure he wants us to use them as blankets, but then he shows us how to make them into tents by securing them to trees with vines from the forest floor. There are three tarps—and now three tents—one for each of us.

“You’ll need the sleeping bags,” says the kook, jamming a few more branches into the fire.

Aurora’s face scrunches up. She studies the pile of supplies, which is mostly beige pouches of food and water.

I duck into my tent. Even more than sleeping bags, I wish the kook had an imaginary stash of pillows. Without them, we’ll probably have major stiff necks by morning.

My head is poking out of the tent, facing the fire. I shift my weight around, trying to find a comfortable position. But like the kook’s sleeping bags, the perfect position doesn’t exist.

As Aurora heads for her tent, the kook says, “There’s a hidden compartment”—he must mean in the backpack, since nothing else is compartmentalized—“in the bottom. Feel around for the zipper. It’s small, but it’s there.”

Aurora doubles back. After a minute of flipping the bag every which way, she pulls out a handful of crinkly sounding material. “These?”

“Precisely.”

From what I can see, the “sleeping bags” are a lot like those aluminum-foil blankets we used last night. When Aurora offers one to the kook, he claims he can withstand temperatures of -20° Fahrenheit (he’s forgetting how he seized up in the river, I guess), thanks to his counter-torture training.

The kook can do whatever he wants, but I’m no idiot. I take the crinkly bag, which is like a burrito wrapper, and snuggle inside. With the tent and the foil bag protecting me, I might make it through the night without turning into a human Popsicle.

Since the kook is set on testing his survival skills, the extra sleeping bag goes to Aurora. I feel better knowing that even if I’m chilly, she’ll be warm—or at least warmer than the rest of us—until morning.

I’m breathing hot air into the bag, trying to create a greenhouse effect, when the kook says, “Have you heard from your father?”

Jeez, the guy must be nosier than I thought. He’s probably been eavesdropping on Mom, Kip, and me with some sort of extrasonic earpiece. “He’s still in Alaska,” I say. “He sends postcards every few days, though.”

“Not you!” barks the kook. “I was speaking to the lady.”

Aurora wiggles out of her tent. “My father?” she gasps. Her hair is tangled and static-y. She pulls a clump of it out of her mouth. “What about my father?”

“I was merely curious,” says the kook, “about what he’s said in his letters. Whether he’s being—?”

“Being what?” asks Aurora. “What letters?”

A crooked grin blooms on the kook’s face. “Perhaps I’ve said too much.”

Honestly, I feel like punching the guy. I mean, how cruel can he be, teasing Aurora with information about her father and then cutting her off like that? “Jerk,” I mumble.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

“Please,” says Aurora, her voice trembling. “If you know something—anything—about my father, you’ve got to tell me.”

“I suggest asking your mother,” says the kook.

“You suggest?” Aurora snorts. “You think I haven’t tried that already? Like a million times?”

“Exaggeration will get you nowhere.”

“Forget it,” I say. “He’s probably lying, anyway.”

The kook proclaims, “I do not lie,” even though he’s the biggest fraud on the planet.

Aurora says, “Prove it.”

“Once the mission is complete, I will tell you everything I know.”

“Which is nothing,” I say again.

“We’ll see about that,” says the kook. And then he lies down and goes to sleep.

Chapter 22

We pack up camp as soon as the sun rises. We haven’t had showers or clean clothes in days, so we stop at the edge of the river and splash water on our faces. Then we cross without falling in.

The hike up the rocky hill is exhausting. Aurora goes first, with the kook’s backpack strapped to her shoulders. The kook is in the middle, in case he loses his footing again. I’ve got the mesh bag full of twigs. The kook says we rescued them just in time, since the shadowy forces are on their way to destroy them, like they destroyed everything else.

When we get back to the car, I’m more convinced than ever that the kook is living in a fantasy world. Because the Camry is locked and in perfect condition, just the way we left it. What kind of shady criminals would pass up the chance to torch our getaway vehicle, when they’re supposedly so fond of arson?

The kook starts the car and turns on the air conditioning. We load the trunk with the special twigs and what’s left of the camping supplies. We’re about to take off, when the kook unbuckles his seatbelt. “Er, excuse me,” he says, holding up a finger. “I must urinate.” He jumps out of the car and heads for the trees.

Aurora and I are laughing about how the kook talks, like saying “urinate” instead of pee—which is technically correct, but grosses people out—when something catches my eye in the rearview mirror. At first I think it’s the wind. But the trees are rustling way too much, like Bigfoot might come storming out at us.

Aurora twists around and peers out the window. “What the—?”

Thumping and crashing and muffled howling echo through the trees. The branches rattle around even more than before. My imagination flashes on the kook being torn limb from limb by some sort of mutant monster, like a cross between a blood-thirsty werewolf and a giant squid.

Aurora flings the door open and heads for danger. I dash out after her. “Wait!” I shout. “Stop!” She doesn’t listen, so I grab her wrist and spin her around.

“Ow!” She glares at me. “That hurt.”

The commotion in the woods dies down. But there’s still no sign of the kook. I cut nervous glances at the trees. “C’mon,” I say, pulling Aurora back toward the car. She doesn’t resist, which means she’s as freaked out as I am.

We lock the doors and wait for the kook. When he hasn’t shown up twenty minutes later, we know something is wrong. “Do you think they took him?” Aurora asks.

“They?” I’m still imagining mutant forest dwellers.

“The shadowy forces.”

Is she really that gullible? “I doubt it.”

“Then where is he?” she asks, gnawing her lip.

“I don’t know. But we can’t sit here all day.” I climb over the shifter, into the driver’s seat.

“What’re you doing?”

I put the car in gear. “Is the fedora still back there?”

She answers by slipping it onto my head.

The hardest thing about getting out of the woods is figuring out which way to go, since Aurora and I were unconscious for our arrival. I tell her to look for tire tracks and smashed bushes, because the way the kook drives, he must’ve slaughtered a bunch of shrubbery getting in here.

She tells me to turn the car around. I’ve got zero space to do it, but I move the Camry a few feet forward and a few feet back, over and over again, cutting the wheel a little more each time. Eventually, we’re sort of facing the opposite direction. “Right there,” says Aurora, pointing at shallow tire marks on the ground.

I shrug and follow the tracks. Soon we’re surrounded by trees, brushing the Camry like a giant outdoor carwash. I try to avoid scratching the kook’s car, but the high-pitched squeaking sounds say I’m failing miserably. Maybe I’ll blame the damage on the shadowy forces, if the kook ever shows back up to ask about it.

We’re not in the woods for long—like a hundred yards, maybe—before barreling downhill (the kook must’ve had a running start to get up here) toward a paved road. Luckily, the road is deserted; there’s not a car in sight.

The Camry bounces unevenly onto the pavement. We’re all over the road for a few seconds, while I get my driving legs again. “Look for signs,” I tell Aurora, since I’ve got to concentrate on keeping us alive. “So we can figure out where we are.”

The first sign we see is for a hotel called Grand View Lodge & Cabins. It doesn’t say what town we’re in, though, so it’s not much help.

We keep going.

Up next is a sign for McDonald’s, stuck on the side of a hill with no McDonald’s in sight. My stomach growls at the thought of a Big Mac and fries. Too bad we can’t stop, since we don’t have any money. And we can’t get caught driving the kook’s car, even if we did.

Like the mountain, the road is steep. I’ve got to just about stand on the brake pedal to keep the car from zinging off a runaway truck ramp; meanwhile, my ears are popping like Mozart’s knuckles. (I assume he had to crack them to loosen up for the piano.)

A trailer park glides by on both sides of the road. Wherever we are, it’s remote. I’m starting to panic, because what if we never make it home?

Just then, Aurora reads off a sign: “Mount Washington Auto Road. Turn right at junction; follow Route 16.”

If Mount Washington is up ahead, then we must’ve been on one of the other Presidentials (there’s a whole range of mountains named after dead presidents), like Mount Adams or Mount Jefferson. “Did you say Route 16?” I ask.

“Uh-huh.”

“Thank God.” I know from riding up here with Dad that Route 16 goes all the way back to Great Swan. Which means we’ll make it home safe, as long as we have enough gas (I check the gauge, and somehow it’s still above the full mark) and I don’t fall asleep at the wheel or anything.

All we have to do now is think up a cover story for where we’ve been. Aurora wants to say we were chasing a lead in the jewelry theft, but she’s fuzzy on the details. And one thing I’ve learned from the kook is that details matter. But I can’t think of any better ideas, so Aurora wins.

When we get back to town, we debate where to ditch the kook’s car. “What about the library?” suggests Aurora. “It’s a quick walk home from there.”

I don’t blame her for wanting to take the easy road. But we’ve got to avoid being spotted in the Camry. And the library is too exposed. “Maybe the post office,” I say. But then I remember that the place is crawling with old people. And old people notice things. We can’t afford to be noticed right now.

“Ooh, I know,” says Aurora. “Scoop City.” She means the ice cream shop a couple of blocks from her mom’s thrift store.

It’s risky—I mean, Scoop City is right in the middle of town—but genius, too. Since it’s summer, the place will be mobbed with tourists. Which will help us blend into the crowd.

We take a shortcut behind the middle school and end up a street over from Scoop City.

“Quick,” I say, jerking the car to the side of the road. I shut it down and toss the fedora into the backseat. “Let’s go.”

We spring out onto the sidewalk. My heart is banging against my ribs, and my throat feels like sandpaper. Other than that, you’d never know I’ve just broken a hundred motor-vehicle laws.

With my eyes glued to the sidewalk, I march forward.

“Oh, jeez,” says Aurora, stopping and pointing. “Look.”

I follow her finger to a telephone pole. Stapled there are two missing-persons posters, one on baby-blue paper with my school picture from last year and one on pink paper with a candid shot of Aurora. She looks blotchy and dazed. I have a plastic smile and a lazy eye.

Perfect.

The posters list our heights and weights and hair/eye colors and give the phone number of the police, in case people have tips on where we’ve disappeared to. I bet the same posters—or virtual ones, anyway—are flying around the Internet.

We hurry past the telephone pole and turn the corner, heading straight for home. We haven’t taken more than twenty steps, when a police officer comes waddling toward us. At first I think it’s the same one that was investigating the missing jewelry, since they’re both short and lumpy. But this one has lighter hair—blond, actually—and is clean shaven instead of wearing a mustache.

Aurora and I swap unsure looks. Under my breath, I mutter, “We should split up.” At least then, one of us might have a chance of getting away.

“Je m’appelle Daisy,” Aurora whispers. “Follow my lead.” The cop has locked on to us like a great white shark on a baby seal. As he approaches, Aurora smiles pleasantly and says, “Bonne journée, Monsieur.”

The cop rears to a stop. He stares at us with flat, sunken eyes. “Come again?” he says, his face twisting.

Aurora elbows me, but I don’t know what to say—or how to say it. I mean, I know she wants me to pretend to be French. But we’ve only taken an introductory class, as part of our foreign-language rotation last year in school. The only words I remember are oui (yes) and crayon (pencil). “Crayon, crayon,” I say, channeling the accent of the cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew.

The cop hikes up his belt. “Huh?”

“Crayon, crayon,” I repeat, grinning like a homicidal maniac.

“Is something wrong with him?” the cop asks Aurora.

She rubs her stomach. “How you say?” she asks, frowning at my abdomen. “Stomach . . . stomach . . . ?”

“Stomachache?” says the cop.

She nods frantically. “Où se trouvent les toilettes?

The cop gets a dazed look. “Sorry,” he says. “I don’t—” He squints, like he’s thinking real hard. “Oh, the toilets!”

I clutch my guts and moan.

He points to a burger joint called Rusty’s, half a block away.

Aurora curtseys. “Merci, merci.”

“Merci, merci,” I parrot. Then we bolt down the street, before the cop can expose us as liars.

Chapter 23

Aurora and I are in huge trouble. Because no one—not Mom or Kip or Aurora’s mother or the police, who were on standby at my house while we were gone, waiting for a mysterious kidnapper to call with a ransom demand—believes we were off chasing an elusive jewelry thief and lost track of time.

It does sound stupid, when you think about it. Maybe the kook would’ve invented a better lie, if he hadn’t been devoured by wild animals in the White Mountain National Forest.

I’m tempted to confess all the kook’s secrets, to save my own skin. But Aurora and I made a pact to protect him, and I don’t want to let her down. Plus, we still have work to do on the kook’s behalf—fulfilling his last wish, I guess you could call it—to make sure his natural additive isn’t obliterated by the shadowy forces and can save the planet someday, like he planned.

As punishment for worrying her half to death, Mom has grounded me for a week and taken away my electronics. Which means I can’t communicate with the outside world. So the kook’s master plan will have to wait.

I heard through the grapevine—specifically, from Kip’s angry complaining (he thinks Aurora and I should be tarred and feathered, I guess)—that Aurora’s mom is only making her work at the thrift shop for the rest of the summer. Which isn’t much of a punishment, since Aurora will probably have the time of her life, polishing knickknacks and banging away at that ancient cash register.

We’re still waiting to see what kind of community service we’ll get assigned, for sending the police on a wild goose chase. It’ll probably be something disgusting, like scooping rats out of the sewer. Still, it might be better than hanging out at home with Warden Kip breathing over my shoulder. Since Aurora and I “screwed up, big time” (Kip’s new favorite phrase), he’s been on my case even worse than before. And Mom just agrees with him, with that hunk of emerald sparkling on her finger.

With everything that’s been happening, I miss Dad pretty bad. And I can’t exactly write to him, either, with Kip bursting into my room every two seconds, making me unclog the shower drain or scrape gum off the bottom of his pigskin loafers. So I’m in the bathroom with the door locked, pretending to have a stomachache (hey, it worked on the cop, so why not try it on Kip?) and thinking up what to say to Dad.

It’s probably time to break the news about Mom and Kip’s engagement.

I shift around on the toilet and wiggle a folded postcard out of my pocket. I prop it on the edge of the sink and write:

Hi Dad,

I forgot to mention last time that your present is awesome. It’s the best gift anyone’s ever given me. Thanks! (I still don’t know what the gift is, but complimenting it might make Dad feel better about what’s coming next.) I can’t believe you’ve only been gone for a few weeks. It seems like a lot longer. Do you know when you’re flying back yet? (Dad’s Alaskan adventure depends on the fish; when they stop showing up, he can shove off.) I hope it’s soon. (I draw a smiley face with a fish’s body and giant fins and a bunch of choppy waves chasing along behind it.) There’s something I should tell you before you come home, though. It’s about Mom and Kip. You can probably guess that things are getting serious with them. (Dad knows that Kip has moved in, so maybe the engagement won’t shock him too much.) Kip gave Mom a ring. It’s not a diamond, but I guess it means the same thing. Sorry.

Did you think about the apartment? It would be sort of fun living downtown. We could walk or ride bikes everywhere, like they do in China—except not in the winter. Maybe you could even get another Harley and teach me how to ride. (I draw two stick-people, waving and grinning, next to a motorcycle.)

See you soon.

Your Son,

Ralph Truman Jr.

All that writing barely fits on the postcard, but somehow I squeeze it in. I dig a stamp out of my shorts and stick it on, then shove the postcard back in my pocket. I fake flush the toilet and pretend to wash my hands.

When I get to the kitchen, Kip is stuffing random dishware into a cardboard box. I slip Dad’s postcard into a pile of bills that Mom has ready for the mailbox. I can feel Kip watching me, like his eyes are laser beams or something. If he sees the postcard, he doesn’t say anything.

I’m about to sneak back to my room, when I notice Kip wrapping a lacy white picture frame in a sheet of newspaper. As he wedges it in the box, I lean over and peer into the living room.

The last picture of Rachel is gone. And now the frame is disappearing, too, I guess.

For Mom’s sake, I’ve tried getting along with Kip. But I can’t anymore. “What’re you doing?!” I yell, yanking the box away from him. I grab the picture frame and wave it around. “You have no right to—!”

Kip throws his arms in the air. “Calm down,” he says. He reaches for the frame, but I clutch it tighter. “And give me that.”

“Nope.”

“Aren’t you in enough trouble already?” he asks, sneering. “Hand it over.”

I stand up straighter. Kip may be gladiator handsome, but he’s not much taller than me. “Does Mom know you’re doing this?” I demand.

“Your mother and I are in full agreement on everything.”

“Where’s the picture? I’ll give you the frame, if you give me—”

Kip chuckles. “Now you’re issuing ultimatums? I don’t think so.”

I glance from the frame, which has come unwrapped from the newspaper, to the tiled floor. Mom, Dad, and I must’ve shattered a whole set of drinking glasses (my butterfingers were to blame for three of them) by dropping them right here.

What’s one lousy picture frame?

My arm swings downward, like I’m going to smash the frame without a second thought. But then I do think twice. Because somehow the frame is part of Rachel, even though it’s just an ordinary, everyday object, like anything else in the house.

I can’t break it, no matter how I feel about Kip. So I tuck it under my arm and go to my room and shut the door and wait for Mom to get home. I expect Kip to come after me—verbally, at least—but he doesn’t. He must figure he’s gotten the last word. Or maybe he’s saving up his energy to turn Mom against me.

  1. # #

I spend the week apologizing to Kip and assuring Mom that I’m not “going down a bad path,” like Kip says I am. I also act like a pack mule, helping Kip load his stash of antiques into a U-Haul truck. He’s taking the stuff to a fancy auction house in Connecticut, where he’ll “score a small fortune” selling it to “clueless bluebloods.”

When I’m not slaving away for Kip, I stare endlessly at the kook’s tree farm, expecting to see him—or the Camry, even though I don’t know how he’d find it—rolling up in a cloud of smoke, like an outlaw-cowboy on a wild mustang. Like everything else this week, though, my fantasies about the kook are a big, fat disappointment.

Mom has taken today—the last day of my punishment—off from work, to keep an eye on me once Kip hits the road for Connecticut, which he does around noontime. Mom and I stand in the driveway, waving and smiling (actually, I’m grimacing more than anything else, but Kip probably can’t tell in that boxy side mirror) until the U-Haul disappears out of sight.

“So, what should we do this weekend?” Mom asks, giving me a squeezy sideways hug. Unless I’m imagining things, she sounds relieved to have Kip out of her hair.

I shrug away from her and head for the garage. “I told Dad about the engagement,” I mumble. “Okay?”

“I know; I saw the postcard.” She sighs. “Come here”—she motions at the porch—“so we can talk for a minute.”

“I’ve got to pump up my bike tires,” I say. “Aurora’s expecting me.” This may or may not be true, since Aurora and I haven’t spoken all week.

“You’re still grounded until tomorrow,” Mom reminds me.

“Yeah.” I search through a plastic tote for the air pump. It’s dirtier than I remember, with a bunch of grease and dust all over it. I clamp the nozzle onto my bike’s back tire and start pumping away.

“I could be persuaded to relax your punishment,” says Mom, “if you’ll discuss a few things with me.”

“Like?”

Mom slips into the garage. “Like the apartment you’re writing to your father about, for starters.”

Uh-oh. She seems ticked off. Or just plain hurt. “What about it?”

“Did he say he was coming back here? After he’s done—?”

“He didn’t say he wasn’t. I mean, he still has his job, doesn’t he?” I stop pumping and watch Mom’s face. It’s blank and tired looking. “Doesn’t he?”

Dad teaches math—specifically, algebra and geometry—at the high school, where Mom used to work until Kip came along. “I wouldn’t know.”

“I think he does. He never said he quit or anything.” And I doubt he would. He loves teaching way too much. And having summers off. And goofing around like a teenager, which is probably hard to do in most jobs. But when you’re with ninth and tenth graders all day long, you fit right in.

“So he’s getting an apartment?” asks Mom.

“He has to live somewhere.”

“And you want to live with him? Instead of—?”

I come right out and say, “I don’t think Kip likes me.”

“Of course, he does.”

“He doesn’t act like it.”

“Kip just isn’t used to kids,” says Mom, like that’s an excuse for how he treats me. “Give him a chance. He’ll come around.”

“Dad needs me,” I say. “He’s all alone.”

Mom winces. I’m not sure if she’s hurt by the idea of me leaving or the idea of Dad being off by himself. “Your father and I tried, Ralph. I hope you know that. No matter what happens, we both love you very much. That’ll never change.”

“How come you never talk about her?” I ask. I don’t have to say which “her” I mean. Mom knows it’s Rachel; it’s always Rachel.

Immediately, I regret saying anything. Because Mom gets teary-eyed, and her voice cracks when she tries to talk. Suddenly, it seems like I’m the grown-up and she’s the kid.

Maybe I am the grown-up, I think. Maybe when your parents fall apart, the kid in you dies.

I change the subject to ice cream, because that’s what grown-ups do: put on happy faces to make other people feel better. And it works, too, because soon I’ve talked Mom into walking to Scoop City for her favorite: a rocky-road waffle cone. What I want is a look at the kook’s car, if it’s still there. And a butterscotch-marshmallow sundae, with two scoops of caramel delight.

Chapter 24

I should have gotten three scoops, because as soon as the ice cream hits my stomach, it melts like snow in August. Now I’ve got a sugar rush and an urge for pepperoni pizza.

“Hey, Mom,” I say, as she tugs a wad of napkins from a pop-up dispenser. She hands me some and I blot my mouth, even though I’ve already licked it clean. “Can we stop at Aurora’s mom’s place?”

I want to swing by the thrift shop for two reasons:

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The shortest way there goes right by the kook’s car, if it hasn’t been towed or blown up by the shadowy forces.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. I’m dying to know if Aurora has heard from the kook. It seems like he would’ve contacted us by now, if he’s still alive.

Mom smiles. “I don’t see why not. It’s a beautiful day. God knows, I could use the exercise. And maybe a new purse, if they’ve got one big enough for my tutoring supplies.”

When we leave Scoop City, Mom heads the wrong way. But I tell her about a shortcut and she lets me lead. I’m blabbing on about boring stuff, like a TV show I want to watch when I’m ungrounded (MythBusters) and what sport I might play when school starts back up again (soccer) to distract her while I scope out the street for the Camry.

I can’t remember exactly where the car is, because of parking it in such a hurry. So I focus on silver sedans. There are plenty of them around—a Hyundai, a Ford, a Toyota (not a Camry, though), another Hyundai, and then . . . bingo!

I recognize the kook’s car with a guilty cringe; it’s a lot more scratched up than I thought. But at least I found it! I’ve still got the key, too, so Aurora and I can sneak back after dark and rescue the kook’s magic twigs. And if we can locate his master plan (according to the kook, he’s left detailed instructions for us at the laboratory), we might know what to do next.

Mom is worried about me playing soccer, because of the news reports on concussions and brain damage. So I agree to think about it some more, while she does a little research, even though I played right through elementary school and she never made a peep. Experience says my skull is thick enough to head a ball without turning my brain to Jell-O.

There’s a puddle of cigarette butts in front of the thrift shop. I kick them aside and hold the door for Mom.

The second Aurora sees me, she flies out from behind the counter and wraps me in a hug. “Nice to see you, too,” I say, chuckling. I don’t hug her back, though, because it feels like a boyfriend-girlfriend sort of thing. And mostly I think of Aurora as a sister, probably because of never knowing Rachel.

By the way Mom is smirking, I bet she’s imagining Aurora and me walking down the aisle someday.

Aurora finally lets go. “Are you taller?” she asks, standing back and examining me. “You look taller.”

I roll my eyes. “You can’t grow much in a week.”

“Well, there’s something different about you,” she insists.

Maybe it’s my muscles. I think they’ve pumped up some, from the hard labor Kip’s had me doing. I guess there’s a silver lining to everything, if you look hard enough.

Mom spots a silk shirt she likes. While she tries it on, Aurora and I make plans to meet later at my house. Then we can figure out what to do about the kook’s disappearance and the Camry and the trunkful of magic twigs.

Mom pops back up beside us. “Your mother”—meaning Aurora’s—“has a keen eye,” she says. Not only does Mom have the silk shirt draped over her arm, but she’s also got a hot-pink blazer and a pair of gray pin-striped pants. Slung over her shoulder are two large purses, one brown and one black.

Aurora beams. “Can I help you find anything else, Mrs. Truman?”

It goes quiet real fast. Mom is back to using her maiden name: Everlee. “I don’t think so,” Mom says stiffly.

“Okay, then.” Aurora fidgets around. “I can check you out over here,” she says, waving Mom toward the cash register.

I’m wandering along behind them, browsing random stuff—there’s a giant birdcage that would go great in the kook’s laboratory—when Aurora’s mom comes swishing by with an armload of hats. (I wonder if the kook bought the fedora here.) She’s a step past me, when she trips on something—a warped floorboard, maybe, since I don’t see any trash lying around—and nosedives for disaster.

Just in time, I grab her. The hats go flying, but I manage to save her from splitting a lip or bruising an eye. “Whew!” she spouts, clawing up my chest until she’s on her feet again. “That was a close one! Thanks, sweetie!” She lays a sloppy, lipstick-red kiss—which’ll probably take half a bar of soap to wash off—right on my forehead. “You saved me. Lord knows, I don’t want to take a fall at my age.”

Like Aurora, her mother is sort of dramatic. I mean, she can’t be older than forty. Maybe even thirty-five. She makes Mom—who’s forty-three, if I’m remembering right—seem like an old maid. Then again, the difference between Aurora’s mom and mine might just be their personalities.

“No problem,” I say, my cheeks flaming. I help her pick up the hats and carry them across the room, to a row of empty shelves. By the time I reach the cash register, Aurora is counting back Mom’s change.

As Mom stuffs the money in her purse, Aurora’s eyes double in size. At first I don’t get what she’s staring at. But then, in a soft voice—like she doesn’t want anyone to hear—she says, “That’s a beautiful ring, Mrs. Truman. Where did you get it?”

Mom’s fingers are bare, except for the pear-shaped emerald from Kip’s Swedish great-grandmother. “I go by Everlee now,” Mom gently corrects, “not Truman.”

It doesn’t seem like Mom is going to answer the question, so I say, “They’re engaged. Remember?”

Aurora’s mouth hangs open. “Oh.”

A throat clears behind us in line. “C’mon, Ralph,” says Mom, shooing me along. “We’re holding up the works.”

Aurora shoots me a desperate glance. I want to tell her to call me—or, better yet, stop by later, like we planned—so we can brainstorm about the kook and whatever else is going on. (By the weird way she’s acting, I get the feeling that something is up.) But then a stocky guy in a leather vest steps up to the counter and blocks my view. The next thing I know, Mom is hauling me out the door.

Chapter 25

I’m hanging out in my room after dinner—Mom tried a new chicken recipe that is going to haunt my stomach for days—and flipping through a couple of the books Aurora has been stacking up for me to read. The truth is, even though I don’t mind reading, there’s always something better to do. I mean, I’d rather wash Kip’s SUV than sit around for hours, scanning page after page and waiting for something big to happen. Most books—or the ones I’ve read, anyway—take way too long getting to the point. I don’t need to know how many petals are on the flower where the dead guy’s brains land.

Aurora is the opposite of me. She could be mesmerized by doctor’s-office notes or grocery lists or the instructions for Play-Doh. Which is why I don’t exactly trust her book-selection techniques. Still, the Guy Montag book looks promising—what kind of twisted author would invent firemen that start fires, anyway?—maybe because of the kook’s secret identity.

I start actually reading the book, instead of skimming random lines here and there. Unfortunately, the first page is so packed with description that I can’t go on; the words literally won’t penetrate my brain.

Oh, well.

I toss the book aside and pick up the next one in the pile: The Call of the Wild, by Jack London. The description says the book is “a gripping tale of a heroic dog that, thrust into the brutal life of the Alaska Gold Rush, ultimately faces a choice between living in man’s world and returning to nature.”

The Alaska thing hooks me right off, because of Dad. I’m ten pages into the story—which is nowhere near as boring as the Ray Bradbury one—when Aurora comes charging into my room. “We need to talk,” she declares, dropping onto the bed.

I hold up a finger, while I finish the page.

She huffs, “Since when are you a reader?” She sounds irritated that anyone but her is enjoying a book, even though she gave the thing to me.

“Done,” I say, dog-earring the page. “What is it?”

She eyeballs me. “Where did your mother get that ring?”

“I told you. It belonged to Kip’s great-grandmother.”

“Um, no, it didn’t.”

“Yes, it did,” I insist.

“No.” She shakes her head forcefully.

“How do you know?”

She takes a deep breath. “We have to call the police.” I think she means about the kook, who’s still missing. I have a bad feeling that we abandoned him to die. If we alert the authorities, we should do it anonymously. When I tell this to Aurora, she rolls her eyes, like I’m a complete idiot. “About Kip,” she says. “And the ring.”

Maybe I am stupid. “What about him?”

“He stole the jewelry.”

My brain finally shifts into gear. “He stole the jewelry?” I repeat, going back in time to the day the lawyer-pest—aka the kook—pulled up beside me, while I was searching the thrift-store shelves for bolt cutters. Kip was in the store that day. Near the jewelry case, actually. But even though he rips people off for a living, I can’t believe he’d outright steal—especially Mom’s engagement ring. “I don’t know. . . .”

“I’d recognize that ring anywhere,” says Aurora. “It’s him; he’s the thief.”

“We can’t accuse him without proof.”

“What more do we need? We have the ring.”

I argue that plenty of rings look alike; the whole thing could be one big, unlucky coincidence. Because as much as I’d like to get rid of Kip, finding out that her fiancé is a criminal might break Mom’s heart forever.

Aurora isn’t convinced of Kip’s innocence, but she is willing to wait for more proof—specifically, the rest of the missing jewelry—before doing anything crazy. “Where would he hide it?” she asks, glancing around my room, like the jewels might be caught in a cobweb or something.

I can’t think of anywhere but Mom’s room. Aurora says we have to search it, ASAP. I figure we’ve got zero chance of sneaking in there. Last I knew, Mom was wandering around the house, looking for an old textbook—some kind of poetry anthology—she’s misplaced.

But then the phone rings.

Aurora and I slither down the hall; I peer into the living room. Mom is curled up on the couch, talking in her lovey-dovey voice, staring at the muted TV (she’s watching The Bachelorette) and saying “mm-hmm” every minute or so.

Kip must be bored at the hotel. I bet he’s talking Mom’s ear off about all the fancy stuff he’s going to buy, once he cashes in on those antiques. Like the velvet smoking jacket (he doesn’t even smoke!) he’s been watching on eBay, with a string of drool dripping down his face.

“Is the coast clear?” whispers Aurora.

I check one last time. Mom is pretty occupied. “I’ll go,” I say. “You distract her, if she comes out here.”

Aurora gives a thumbs-up and moves to a strategic spot by the refrigerator, where she can spy into the living room without being seen; meanwhile, I tiptoe to Mom’s room and slip inside. If I get caught going through her—or Kip’s—stuff, I’ll say I’m looking for the toenail clippers.

Mom and Dad’s room used to be a hundred shades of purple—lilac walls, plum carpeting, grape pillows, and on and on—which drove Dad bonkers, probably. But he was a pushover; he let Mom have her way, without a speck of fight.

I wonder if he was so easy before Rachel died.

Now that Kip has taken over, the pillows are tan and there are so many pictures on the walls (he collects art, hoping it’ll skyrocket in value) that you can barely see the lilac anymore.

I start my search in the most obvious place: Dad’s underwear drawer. It’s stuffed to bursting with Kip’s tighty-whities. I hold my breath and paw around, but there’s no sign of the stolen jewelry.

I move on to the next drawer. And the one after that. They’re all clean.

Strike one.

For a second, I wonder if I should check Mom’s dresser, too. But she would never be involved in Kip’s sleazy schemes. So I blow off the idea and head for the second most obvious hiding spot: the closet.

Since Kip moved in, Mom’s organizational skills have flown south. The closet is a heaping mess of clothes and shoes and boxes galore. And sports equipment that really should be in the garage—or at the dump, with Kip’s busted old rowing trophies.

I shove a tennis racket aside and pickpocket Kip’s khaki pants and polo shirts, hoping for a miracle.

Strike two.

I’m starting to think Aurora is wrong; maybe the emerald ring is a coincidence, after all. Because I’ve gotten two-thirds of the way through the boxes and found nothing incriminating, unless you count a stash of holiday-themed neckties with pictures of cats on them: Easter cats with bunny ears and Fourth of July cats with Uncle Sam beards and Thanksgiving cats with Pilgrim hats.

I shudder and cram the box back into place. The next one I dig out is a shipping carton, with a bunch of packing tape circling it, like garland on a Christmas tree. It’s upside down, so I can’t tell who Kip—or Mom, I guess—might be mailing it to. Maybe Kip is sending it to a jewelry fence. (I think that’s what you call the shady guys that help you get rid of stolen goods.)

I’m about to flip the package over, when a weird cawing sound shoots through the air.

Is Aurora using the kook’s secret signal to warn me that Mom is coming?

I check the hall, but Aurora is still in her spot by the fridge, staring into the living room. I guess the sound was an actual bird—or maybe the kook returning next door. (I hope he’s still alive. Because even though he’s a nut, he’s sort of growing on me.)

Back to the box. I turn it over and find something that makes me sick to my stomach. It’s worse than Kip maybe being a fraud and/or criminal.

Much worse.

The package isn’t waiting to be mailed; it’s already been mailed. To me. From Dad. For my birthday.

Chapter 26

I open Dad’s gift in the bathroom, for privacy. It’s a model of a seaplane, with banana-shaped floats instead of wheels. Real seaplanes take off and land on water (duh), which is pretty cool. I bet Dad’s seen tons of them in Alaska. People fly everywhere up there, because it’s so big (Alaska is the largest state in size, but near the smallest in population) and the towns are so far apart. At least that’s what Dad said before he left. Maybe when he gets back, he’ll have a million interesting stories to tell.

I stuff the plane back in the box. I don’t bother pretending to flush the toilet or wash my hands, since Mom is probably still on the phone. When I meet Aurora back in my room, her arms are crossed. “So?” she says.

“Uh-uh,” I say about the jewelry, which is probably long gone, whether Kip stole it or not.

She nods at the box. “What’s that, then?”

“Personal.”

Aurora won’t take no for an answer. Soon I’m showing her the plane and explaining how it was hidden in Mom’s closet, like someone—I think it was Kip, but it could’ve been Mom, too—didn’t want me to have it. Like someone was trying to punish me and/or Dad by putting a wedge between us.

“That’s just . . . wrong,” Aurora says, her face folding up. “What’re you going to do?”

I’m planning on letting the whole thing go, like always. Because I don’t want to upset Mom. But then I get thinking about Dad. About how he swept stuff under the rug and never got mad or rocked the boat or anything. About how he didn’t fight for Mom or me or even this house, when Mom said she was moving out.

Maybe that’s what Mom wanted: someone to fight for her. Or to fight with her. (To be honest, Mom, Dad, and I are emotional zombies. It’s not our fault, though. A tragic death will do that to you.)

Out of nowhere, the kook’s algae-eyes pop into my mind. They’re telling me to act. To do something. To make a change.

I don’t think twice. I just storm into the living room and start yelling. Mom is so shocked that she drops the phone. It spins across the floor and skids under the bookcase.

Mom tries to calm me down, but I’m out of control: my blood is pumping and my ears are ringing and my arms are flying every which way, like I’m conducting an orchestra of rage. So many words are rushing out of my mouth—I feel them going, like physical things, like wooden letter-blocks that might choke me if they slow down too much—that I can’t keep track of them; I have no idea what I’m saying.

Even though I don’t know the exact words (it’s like my hearing has short-circuited), the point of my ranting and raving is this:

#
p<>{color:#000;}. I hate Kip.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. I hate Mom, for ditching Dad. And for ignoring me. Which she did long before Kip showed up. He was just a convenient excuse.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. I hate this house. It’s haunted by all of Rachel’s nevers, like how she never learned to walk and never said “mama” and never rode a bike and never went to school and never fought with her little brother. Those nevers are exhausting.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. When Dad gets back, I want to live with him.

Mom keeps herself together, until I mention the apartment. I’m not sure Dad is even on board, but getting out of here, escaping the sadness of Rachel’s death—and the destruction of Mom and Dad’s marriage—is the only thing I can think about right now.

Except Mom’s tears. Because as soon as my anger starts fizzling, Mom bursts out crying and runs to her room.

Aurora bites her lip. “Should I go after her?”

A wave of dizziness washes over me. I drop into Dad’s recliner. “If you want to,” I say, shutting my eyes.

Her footsteps disappear down the hall.

  1. # #

Aurora and I get lucky. We make it downtown on our bikes in the dark, without becoming roadkill. We’re even luckier, though, because the Camry is still where we left it.

“You remembered the key, right?” Aurora says, as we lean our bikes against a telephone pole.

It’s freezing outside—for summer, anyway. Most of the tourists are probably huddled around fires or flat-screen TVs. Which leaves the streets empty.

Perfect.

I wiggle the key out of my pocket and pop open the Camry’s trunk. I can’t see too good inside, because of the angle of the streetlight. If trunks have inside lights, the kook’s is broken.

I’ve got no choice, really, but to feel around for the bag of twigs. Once we get it back to the kook’s laboratory, we can advance his plan to save the world from environmental destruction.

Except . . .

My hands aren’t finding the twigs. Instead, they’re touching something warm and solid and . . . alive!

I jump backward, trip over the curb, and go blam! on the sidewalk, skinning my forearm and twanging my funny bone pretty hard.

“Oh, my God! Are you all right?” squeals Aurora, rushing to help me.

Whatever is in the trunk is whimpering and moaning and bouncing around, making the car rock like a baby’s cradle.

Rubbing my elbow, I struggle to my feet. Aurora brushes some dirt off my shirt. “Something’s in there,” I whisper, bobbing my head at the car.

“Like what?” Aurora trots over and sticks her face in the trunk. “Shoot, shoot, shoot!” she chirps. “Help me get him out!”

Him? I don’t dare ask. Hopefully it’s a stray kitten that has somehow found its way into the kook’s car.

Cautiously, I approach. I’m leaning over the trunk, when Aurora shoves me forward. From the darkness, a single algae-eye—wide and panicked—pops out at me.

The kook is in the trunk? No way!

Not only is he in the trunk, but he’s bound (his hands are tied behind his back with a frayed rope) and gagged (with duct tape). Whoever left him here must not have wanted him dead too bad, though, because his nose isn’t covered; he can breathe as much stale trunk air as he wants.

It’s hard lifting—or wrestling—a human being, especially one who’s fifty pounds heavier than you, up and out of . . . well, anywhere, probably. Between Aurora and me, we smack the kook’s head against the car a bunch of times and even drop him once, before setting him upright on the curb. The rope is loose, so I slip it off over his wrists.

Aurora and I argue for a few seconds about who’s going to remove the duct tape; neither of us wants to rip the kook’s face off. Before we reach an agreement . . .

“What took you so long?” says the kook, tossing the balled-up tape (he must’ve peeled it off with his good hand) over his shoulder.

“What took us so long?” repeats Aurora. “We didn’t even know you were here!”

“Never mind,” says the kook. “Someone help me.” He holds out his hand, and I pull him off the curb. He glances nervously up and down the street. “We’ve got to get out of here. Where’s the key?”

“We rode our bikes,” says Aurora.

I fish the key back out of my pocket. “Here,” I say, slipping it into the kook’s palm.

The kook tells us to put the bikes in the trunk, but they don’t fit. I grab Aurora’s arm. “C’mon,” I say. We get on the bikes.

The kook jumps into the Camry. As Aurora and I pedal away, the car purrs to life. Headlights bear down on us, like the kook is going to run us over. But instead, he just hangs out the window and screams, “Fifteen minutes! The laboratory! Tell no one!” and then zooms off into the darkness, with only a streetlight catching a fuzzy silver blur.

Chapter 27

I’m going to be grounded for a month this time for sure. Not only have I insulted Mom’s fiancé and made her cry, but now I’ve snuck out of the house. And it doesn’t look like I’ll be getting home any time soon.

“Are you sure about this?” I ask Aurora, as we coast to a stop at the edge of the kook’s forest. It’s pitch black and eerily quiet. To get to the laboratory—if we can even find it at this time of night—we’re going to have to ditch the bikes.

She answers with a string of questions: “Don’t you want to know what happened? I mean, how did John end up in the trunk?” She sighs. “Do you think the shadowy forces put him there?”

“I don’t know,” I say. I’m not even sure I believe in the shadowy forces. If they do exist, how did they find the Camry? Getting the kook into the trunk would’ve been the easy part, I bet, with his limp arm.

“It’s been fifteen minutes,” remarks Aurora.

“Yeah, I guess.”

We tuck our bikes between two trees and start weaving our way through the forest. I have to hold on to the back of Aurora’s shirt, to avoid tripping and falling on my face.

After only a few missteps, we emerge beside the kook’s glowing barn. Inside, the kook is rushing around, grabbing stuff and shoving it into crates. As soon as he sees us, he barks, “You’ve done nothing—nothing!—on the list!” He gestures wildly at a chalkboard on the wall, where a boxed-off section is labeled MASTER PLAN. Under the title are numbered instructions. Too bad they’re written in a foreign language (which would be okay, if we had a translation dictionary) or a secret code (which we’d probably never crack, considering the kook’s paranoia). “We’re doomed, now, I tell you! Doomed!”

We? No matter what the kook thinks, Aurora and I are not his partners. At most, we’re reluctant dupes—or patsies or schmucks or scapegoats or whatever you call innocent people that get mixed up in (and sometimes blamed for) crimes they don’t commit.

“He was grounded,” says Aurora, elbowing me. “Right, Ralph?”

“Mm-hmm.”

We’re hanging around outside the barn, waiting for . . .

“What’re you waiting for, an engraved invitation?” spouts the kook. “Get in here and help me!”

Aurora and I lock eyes. She shrugs. Before I know it, we’re racing around in circles, helping the kook pack up his lab.

Packing it up for what, though? I decide not to ask. If the kook wants us to know, he’ll tell us.

We’ve got less than half of the job done, when the kook hisses, “That’s enough! Enough! Follow me!” He scowls. “And don’t come empty-handed!”

I load Aurora’s arms with crates. She looks like a confused chicken, pecking left and right, trying to see around the stack. I’ve got a better view over my stack, but not much.

The kook leads us out of the barn, through the house, and into his bedroom. When he motions at the closet, I figure his craziness has hit a whole new level. The stuff we’re carrying has no chance of fitting in there. I mean, the thing is smaller than our linen closet at home, which can hold six towels, a jumbo pack of toilet paper, and a jug of bleach.

“My arms hurt,” moans Aurora, shifting around on her feet.

“Yeah, um, where do you want these?” I ask.

“Patience,” says the kook. “I forgot the code.” He falls on his stomach and gropes around under the bed. Eventually, he pulls out a bright red pair of sneakers with yellow lightning bolts on them. “Eureka!” he says, dangling them in the air.

I’m expecting him to put the sneakers on, even though it makes no sense. But instead, he sticks his face into one of the smelly things—at least I assume they stink—and squints at the underside of the tongue. “Fourteen, twenty-two, nine,” he recites. “Remember that.”

He’s written a secret code—a combination, probably—inside a flashy pair of running shoes? I’d say I’m surprised, but I’m not.

He shuffles over to the wall by the closet. “Thirteen, twenty-two, nineteen,” he mumbles, flipping open the plastic cover of what looks like a thermostat, but must really be some sort of security system.

“Fourteen,” corrects Aurora.

“And you said nine,” I add, “not nineteen.”

“Nine, fourteen, nineteen,” says the kook, pressing buttons on the security panel. He turns the doorknob, but it doesn’t budge.

“You’re doing it wrong,” huffs Aurora. She plops the crates on the bed and shoves in beside him. “Let me . . .” With a few quick taps, she enters the code.

On its own, the closet springs open. It looks like a black hole in there. Or maybe a safe, for storing the kook’s magic potions.

“Where do you want these?” I repeat, shaking around the crates. Even though they’re not heavy, they are bulky.

The kook pulls a miniature flashlight out of his pocket and shines it into the closet. But the closet isn’t a closet at all; it’s a staircase, leading underground. And not a nice, finished staircase to a basement rec room, either. The passage is musty and earthy (the “walls” are made of dirt and rocks and stuff) and the steps are cobbled together out of old shipping pallets.

I wonder if the kook dug the passage himself with a teaspoon, like a desperate prisoner. (For all we know, he has escaped from actual prison and is wanted by the law. I mean, that would explain the “shadowy forces.”)

The only light we’ve got is the kook’s puny flashlight. He goes down the stairs first, lighting the way. But the darkness just swallows the beam. Aurora and I are left stumbling along behind him, trying not to fall—which is a big possibility—or drop the kook’s junk. Once, my toe gets hooked on a broken board and the crates tip sideways, crunching my fingers.

The stairs gradually disappear, like the steps of an escalator. Now we’re in a cavelike tunnel, which doesn’t look like it goes anywhere good. Actually, it feels like a tomb, like it might collapse and bury us alive.

Nothing like that happens, though. Instead, the kook talks us (we’re following his voice more than anything else) to a fancy wooden door that reminds me of the gothic carvings at the library.

The door is stuck. Really, really stuck. The kook doesn’t have a prayer of opening it with only one good arm.

“I could try,” offers Aurora. “I’m stronger than I look.”

“Of course, you are,” says the kook, “but this is a job for young Mr. Truman, I think.”

“Ralph,” I say, setting the crates down and wriggling past Aurora and the kook. The door has a giant iron handle, which is useless until I kick an avalanche of dirt out of the way. Then the door glides open.

Nothing could prepare me for what’s inside.

Instead of hungry mutant animals (I was imagining cages full of experimental creatures, which, in my mind, the kook was breeding to protect his secret laboratory), there’s a rainforest of exotic plants—stuff with weird, crocodile-looking skin and wormlike tentacles—hiding under the kook’s house.

Now we know where all that fertilizer went, I guess.

Chapter 28

The kook gives us a quick tour of the rainforest, which is as bright as the sun with jittery florescent lights, exclaiming information about this plant and that one as we go. By the time we reach the dumbwaiter (the kook has one of those weird elevator chutes for raising and lowering stuff between floors), I forget that I’m lugging his precious lab equipment.

On the kook’s orders, we stack the crates in front of the dumbwaiter, along with a bunch of other stuff he’s got on standby, probably for the apocalypse.

“What happened to you?” Aurora asks the kook, when he finally gives us a break. “You never came back from”—her lips twist sideways—“urinating. And then—” She doesn’t have to mention the kook being bound and gagged in the trunk of the car; it’s the big, fat elephant in the rainforest.

“Oh, that,” says the kook. “Ambushes are to be expected.” He shrugs. “I gave them the twigs and let them detain me, to buy some time.”

By “them” I assume he means the shadowy forces. “What about the natural additive?” I ask. “Don’t you need the twigs for—?”

With a spiky grin, the kook drags me over to a row of bushes. “Always have a backup plan,” he says, squeezing my arm so hard it goes numb. He nods at a particular plant, which must be the source of the twigs. “Always.”

Aurora makes the mistake of asking what the kook plans to do to keep the shadowy forces off his trail. Which gets him rambling on about a mathematical strategy called game theory. He says that to win against the shadowy forces, he has to make the most “rational moves.” (Translation: he has to make decisions with his head and keep his feelings out of things.) His next move is to pull up stakes and relocate, along with the ingredients for his natural additive, to an undisclosed, mountainous location. (For some reason, a bunch of the plants that make fuel last forever grow at high altitudes.)

I’m not sure math is the answer to the kook’s problems. But for now, we agree to help him. Or, actually, Aurora agrees. I just sigh and shrug, knowing I’ll get sucked into everything she does.

“Excellent,” says the kook, shooing us back up the spooky tunnel-stairs and out of his bedroom. “Stay tuned for further instructions.” We snake through his newspaper pit of a living room. At the door, he adds, “If you see any black vans skulking around, launch the ballistic missiles, swallow the suicide pill, go directly to DEFCON 1.”

“Sure,” I say. Whatever that means.

  1. # #

It’s late when I get home. Late enough to get me shipped off to one of those juvenile-delinquent camps, where they work you like a coal miner eighteen hours a day. Except that Mom probably can’t afford to send me there. (Like I said, everything has a silver lining.) And, also, she’s sound asleep in her room. On top of the covers. With her hands over her face, like she’s been crying since we left.

A lot of good Aurora’s pep talk did, I guess.

Or maybe Kip called. Maybe Mom confronted him. Maybe they’ve broken up now for real. For good.

I crawl into bed and fall straight asleep. In my dreams, Mom, Dad, and I are back at Disney World. We’re in line for a great new ride. I’m excited and happy—happier than I’ve ever been, like joy is bubbling off my skin.

But then the ride starts. It’s dark and eerie. We’re inside some sort of motorized vehicle—a van, it feels like—clicking up, up, up the side of a mountain. The van shakes and people scream and the driver cackles like a deranged lunatic.

I peer through the aisle. Kip is at the wheel. He’s got a mouthful of scissor-teeth. He’s wearing the old tennis whites I sent to the dump and shifting the van—very, very badly—with one of the busted rowing trophies.

I tell Dad to do something—to stop Kip from driving us off a cliff—but he just pulls a fish out of his pocket and lops its head off. The fish pile up fast, too. Dad is like a machine, slicing and dicing, leaving blood and guts everywhere. When we zing around a turn, a stream of fish heads slides across my lap, flowing down the aisle and out the back doors of the van, which are wide open.

We’re going to die; I can feel it. I jump out of my seat and make a run for Kip’s delirious face. If I punch him hard enough, I can knock out those razor-teeth like they’re big, wooden clown’s teeth (the kind you shoot with water cannons) at a carnival.

But I can’t get anywhere near Kip, because Aurora—or a ghostlike version of her, anyway—pops up in the aisle, blocking me. I try shoving her out of the way, but she’s made of smoke. My hands just flap around, and I fall into a fat lady’s fishy lap.

Aurora melts away.

Through the windshield, a jagged cliff—and a drop-off bigger than the Grand Canyon—is coming up fast. Kip’s cackling turns to howling. The van picks up speed, like we’re in a rocket or something.

With fish guts dripping off me, I lunge for Kip. This time, I get almost within arm’s reach of him. Another step, and I’ll save us all from mortal doom.

Not so fast, though.

Suddenly, I’m jerked sideways. My mind floats out of my body and hovers over the van. I look down and see Mom’s hand, which is the size of the whole rest of her, clamped around my collar, holding me back from killing Kip, with that emerald ring beaming rays of green light like she’s a superhero or something.

I watch, frozen, as Kip plunges the van off the cliff.

My stomach flattens. The van freefalls for a few seconds, before . . .

The kook’s secret signal blasts through the air, as loud as a foghorn. An enormous, prehistoric-looking bird swoops down out of nowhere, with the kook, dressed in his lawyer-pest plaid shirt and glasses and even the fedora, clinging to the bird’s neck, riding him (somehow I know the bird is a “him”) bareback like he’s (the bird, I mean) a wild stallion.

The van keeps plummeting. It’s about to go splat! at the bottom of a rocky canyon, when the kook starts spurring the bird with his lightning-bolt sneakers and working the reins (the bird is wearing some sort of harness) with both of his arms, even the lame one.

I’m hung up somewhere in the clouds, amazed by the kook’s arms, by how they’re rippling like waves and making the bird dive-bomb straight downward—totally vertical—after the van.

By now, the van should’ve splintered into a million pieces. But time has slowed down or stretched out or something. The van is still falling. It grazes the side of the canyon with a burst of sparks. The kook tries to duck them, but he ends up covered in soot, like a charred campfire marshmallow.

Everyone inside the van, including the other me (I’m two places at once, somehow), screams bloody murder.

Time speeds up. So does the van. The kook goes wild, whipping and spurring the bird, until, at the last second, when the van is about to explode on impact, the bird’s beak opens wide and . . .

I wake up sweating, with my heart beating in my throat. My bedroom is a black hole, so I don’t bother getting up. I just sink deeper under the covers and pinch my eyes shut and try to drift back to sleep. Because even though the van might be about to splatter, I have a strong feeling that the kook’s bird-stallion will save us—maybe by grabbing the van’s bumper and freeze-framing things—just in the nick of time.

Chapter 29

I’m still in bed, when I hear a car pulling into the driveway. I groan and roll over; it’s probably Kip, returning like Blackbeard, with his pockets full of plundered loot. I wouldn’t be surprised if gold doubloons come spilling out of his khakis when he strides by.

The alarm clock beside my bed says 9:00 a.m. Which means Kip must’ve gotten up at 4:00 a.m. to make it home by now. Somehow his being back is worse than if he’d never left.

Maybe the kook can invent a way to rewind time, I’m thinking (I’d go back to the day Rachel died and watch her all night long, to keep her safe), when the front door creaks open.

My stomach starts gurgling. I throw the covers off and jump out of bed. Two steps down the hallway (I’m heading for the garage, in hopes of escaping outside), I hear Dad’s voice.

Every muscle in my body freezes. I can’t think or talk or even breathe. I can only listen. Which I’m doing with the concentration of a fighter-jet pilot. For a minute, I think I’ve imagined Dad’s voice, because Mom is the only one talking. She sounds like she’s on the phone with Grandma, by all the weather-related stuff she’s saying. I mean, she’s got the temperatures and wind speeds and barometric pressures memorized for days.

I slink to the edge of the kitchen and peer around the corner, into the living room. Dad is sitting on the couch instead of in his recliner, like maybe he can smell Kip—or has spotted Kip’s butt print—on the chair, making it radioactive. His hands are balanced on his knees, and his face has a bunch of odd, patchy hair. He looks homeless or drunk or both.

And he stinks. Bad. Like dead fish. I gulp down the urge to vomit.

“So . . .” says Mom, fidgeting with the remote control until it’s aligned with the edge of the coffee table.

I stare at Dad like he’s a stranger, because somehow he is. Alaska has made him rougher, tougher, stronger in a quiet, thoughtful sort of way.

“I don’t want this.” Dad sighs. “I don’t want a divorce.” I expect his voice to be shaky, but it’s not. It’s calm and cool and determined, like Mom can’t help but agree with him.

Mom doesn’t agree or disagree, though. “Kip left Connecticut already,” she says. “He’ll be, uh”—her eyes roam around the room—“back soon.”

“You think I care about—?”

“Shh,” says Mom. “You’ll wake Ralph.”

“Good,” says Dad. “He should hear this.”

“He should hear us—?”

“Discussing things? Trying to resolve a situation?” Dad fingers a patch of hair on his chin. “Absolutely. It’s time everyone in this house learned to communicate better, don’t you think?”

Mom frowns. “Like this? How is this going to help anything?”

Dad is getting upset. But it’s the good kind of upset. The kind of upset that gets to the bottom of things. The kind of upset that makes things change—hopefully for the better.

I step out of the refrigerator’s shadow. “I’m already awake,” I say, heading for the cushion next to Dad. “Hi, Dad.” I plop down beside him. “Welcome back.”

Mom swivels around on the ottoman. She squints back at the kitchen, like she can’t believe I’ve materialized out of nowhere. Like she should’ve seen me coming.

Dad’s face relaxes. He throws an arm around my shoulder.

I’m not quick enough holding my breath; the fishy stench gags me.

“You think that’s bad?” Dad says, laughing. “Imagine how the people on the plane felt.” He conks heads with me. “Good to see you, geezer. How old are you now, anyway, like forty?”

“Ha-ha,” I say, pulling away from him. I gasp for air, but Dad—or at least his clothing—is giving off a nasty stink-cloud. The best I can do is breathe shallow and try not to taste the fish as it tickles the back of my throat.

Mom, Dad, and I make boring small talk for a while, mostly about Mom’s tutoring job, which Dad pretends is okay, even though he loved working with her at the high school. They used to eat lunch together and volunteer for the same after-school clubs.

I’m hoping Mom doesn’t rat me out as a juvenile delinquent, because then I’ll have to tell Dad the whole crazy truth about the kook. And I’m pretty sure he—the kook, I mean—would be arrested for some of the stuff he’s done, like drugging and kidnapping me and Aurora. If the kook gets locked up, Aurora will hate me forever.

Luckily, Mom doesn’t mention a thing about my questionable behavior. Maybe she’s trying to protect my reputation with Dad. Or maybe she’s trying to protect her own reputation, so Dad doesn’t take me away from her.

If Mom and Dad do get a divorce, I’m living with Dad.

The way things are going, though—even with Kip on his way back, Mom has offered Dad a hot shower and an omelet—it seems like there’s still hope of Mom and Dad working things out.

Dad accepts the shower. While he’s in there scraping fish guts out from under his fingernails, I put on some regular clothes and comb my hair and wolf down an English muffin with grape jelly; meanwhile, Mom gathers the eggs and cheese and spices (Dad is a huge fan of black pepper, which she grinds into the egg mixture) and gets them cooking on the stove.

I’m sitting at the table with a full belly, feeling the same kind of bubbling happiness as in that dream. Which makes my heart race and my skin crawl with invisible bugs. Because what if something bad is about to happen?

As Mom slides the omelet onto a plate, Dad comes shuffling down the hall. He’s got a fresh pair of jeans and a clean T-shirt (he must’ve left some clothes here) and a towel hanging around his neck. Every once in a while, he grabs the towel and rubs it across his hair, which is damp and messy.

The omelet doesn’t have a chance; Dad eats like he’s been stranded in the desert for a month, surviving on rainwater and cactus fruit, like the kook claims to have done.

Yeah, right.

“Why did you come back early?” I ask. “Did the fish run out?”

Mom and Dad swap glances. “Nope,” says Dad, licking his fork. “Paperwork.”

Mom forces a smile. “It was my idea. I thought your father could spend some time with you, before school starts up again. Won’t that be nice?”

Actually, it’ll be awesome. Scratch the paperwork, though. It’s probably about the community service Aurora and I have to do. I bet Dad has to sign in blood that I won’t do anything stupid ever again.

The problem is, he hasn’t met the kook.

I bring my plate to the sink. “Where are you staying?” I ask Dad. He went straight from here to Alaska and back again. As far as I know, he’s homeless—except that, technically, this house is still his. Maybe Mom will let him pitch a tent in the backyard or set up a cot in the garage or sleep on the grungy old futon in the basement.

Dad stares into space. “I’ll be alright,” he says. “I’m fine. There are plenty of places I can—”

Mom sneaks off down the hall. Which is good, because I don’t want to say this in front of her. “Can I go with you?”

“Jeez, I don’t think—” Dad shakes his head. “I mean, your mother wouldn’t know what to do without—”

“Yes, she would,” I argue. “She’s got Kip now. She barely pays attention to me anymore. Plus, she’s in Boston all the time.” Not that I’m complaining. It’s been nice having some extra freedom. And it would be even nicer having that freedom at Dad’s place, wherever that turns out to be.

“I’ll talk to her,” Dad relents. “But no guarantees. Okay?”

I’m fiddling with the radio knobs (Dad hates country music, so I’m hand tuning the radio instead of using Mom’s presets), when Mom shows back up. She’s got a big yellow envelope in one hand and a small velvet pouch in the other.

I pick a pop music station and turn the volume down low, so it’s just background noise.

Mom drops the envelope on the table, in front of Dad. He opens it and takes out a stack of papers. “Is this necessary?” he asks, scowling.

The radio hums softly along. Mom sits down at the table, between Dad and me. She lets Dad’s question hang in the air, while she pulls apart the drawstrings of the pouch.

Dad flips through a few pages. Sighs. Flips through some more with his hand on his forehead, like he’s got an instant headache.

I get up and peek over Dad’s shoulder, so I’m not exactly focusing on Mom when she spills the contents of the pouch out on the table.

The papers Mom wants Dad to sign are a separation agreement—at least that’s what the big, bold heading on the front page says.

Suddenly, I wish the paperwork was about me. About all the dumb stuff the kook has had me doing. About the punishment the cops are dreaming up to teach me and Aurora a lesson. I’ll even go willingly to the juvenile-delinquent dungeon and let the toothless guards use me as a piñata, if Mom will drop the divorce and give things a chance to get back to normal.

Of course, that would mean Kip has to disappear. And I doubt that’s going to happen.

Dad notices me being nosy and covers the page with his arm.

“I’m not a baby,” I say. “I know what’s going on.”

When Dad hears the word baby, his eyes jump to a discolored zone of paint on the wall, where Rachel’s picture used to be. I feel sorry for him, as his face crumples with the same gut punch I got a few weeks ago.

I guess death isn’t final. Not for the people left behind.

Dad opens his mouth, like he’s going to ask about the picture. But then Mom dangles a diamond bracelet from her fingers and says, “Does anyone recognize this?” She motions at the table in front of her. “Or these?”

My heart stops at the sight of a pearl necklace and an old sapphire ring. “Where’d you get those?” I ask, Aurora’s voice ringing in my head, describing the stolen jewelry: two antique rings, a pearl necklace, and a diamond tennis bracelet. If you count the emerald on Mom’s hand, we’ve got all four pieces right here!

“They were in my dresser,” explains Mom. She nods at the paperwork. “Under the envelope.”

Dad shrugs. “Don’t ask me.”

I don’t bother suggesting that Kip is the thief, because no one—except maybe Dad, who has every reason to hate the guy—will believe me. I just walk calmly to my room and call Aurora. It’s up to her to get the authorities involved.

Chapter 30

Aurora doesn’t call the police. She just comes over with her mother and checks out the jewelry for herself. As soon as Mrs. Fitzgerald spots the emerald on Mom’s finger, she cries, “Hallelujah, hallelujah!” and practically rips the thing off Mom’s hand.

Mom is in shock. And disbelief. And, obviously, denial. No matter what anyone says (Aurora and her mom are 1,000 percent sure of Kip’s guilt, because a new witness described him to a T), she won’t accept the fact that her fiancé is a criminal.

Dad doesn’t say much. He just holds back a grin and abruptly leaves, claiming he’s got to meet a friend about renting a room. If that’s true, I guess I won’t be living with him in the apartment by the library. But maybe he’ll be back here with Mom and me soon, anyway.

Reluctantly, Mom turns over the stolen jewelry, once Mrs. Fitzgerald digs undeniable proof out of her purse. (She photographs everything that comes and goes at the thrift shop; the ring is an exact match, down to a slightly crooked prong holding the stone in place.)

Mom looks crushed. But I can’t exactly feel bad about Kip. “There must be an explanation,” Mom keeps muttering, as we trail Aurora and her mother outside.

No one points out the obvious: Mom has been duped by a con man.

Aurora and her mother have just reversed out of the driveway, when a U-Haul truck comes creeping down the street. On its tail is a Meals-on-Wheels van. The van makes a wrong turn into the kook’s camouflaged driveway.

Weird.

My eyes don’t know where to focus. As the man of the house, I should be here to support Mom, when she kicks Kip out for being a lying, low-down criminal. But the Meals-on-Wheels van has disappeared. And I can’t exactly see the kook ordering frozen dinners for old people, especially when he grows his own food and irradiates the life out of it before letting it pass over his lips.

It hits me that maybe the van is a cover for the shadowy forces. But I bounce that idea right out of my head, because the driver is an old lady with a flamingo’s neck, neon-red lipstick, and a puff of curly silver hair. She couldn’t hurt a fly, as they say.

So what’s taking her so long to turn around?

Kip leaves the U-Haul in the street, blocking half of the road. He struts up to Mom, who’s fumbling around in the garage, and plants a kiss on her lips.

Gross.

I’m waiting for the fireworks to start—Mom should be slapping Kip’s face or kneeing his groin or something—but she just pulls away and wanders inside.

Kip follows.

I should go, too. But I can’t stop wondering about the Meals-on-Wheels lady. Something isn’t right about her. And now she’s vanished without a trace.

I glance from the kook’s forest to my house. If I go inside, I can help Mom get rid of Kip. But then I’ll miss whatever is happening at the kook’s place.

Mom can take care of herself, I decide. (As far as I know, Kip isn’t physically dangerous.) But the kook is an easy target, with that lame arm. I can’t let him fall prey to the shadowy forces.

I weave easily through the trees, which are starting to feel like old friends, and emerge beside the kook’s barn. The Meals-on-Wheels van is nowhere in sight, which gets me thinking that it’s magical and has—poof!—disappeared into thin air. Or slipped into one of those alternate universes Aurora is always daydreaming about.

But then I spot tire tracks on the moat-lawn. There’s barely enough space for the van to squeeze between the kook’s house and the trees, but somehow it’s wedged against the kook’s bedroom window.

My heart starts thundering. It’s a perfect setup for one of those ambushes the kook is always expecting.

He probably didn’t expect this, though.

Half of my brain says to turn around. Because who knows what the shadowy forces will do to me, if I foil their evil plans? But the other half says to help the kook, even if it means ending up in the emergency room—or worse.

I’m frozen in place. If I had a coin, I’d flip it. That way if I do the wrong thing, I can blame it on random chance instead of being a moron.

As quietly as possible, I sneak up to the van. Like Kip’s SUV, the thing has blacked-out windows. (The driver’s window must’ve been down when the Meals-on-Wheels lady cruised by.)

Now the windows are up. And the van is running. And it’s jostling around pretty good, too, like someone—or a gang of someones—is getting physical inside.

I hope the shadowy forces aren’t beating the kook to a pulp.

For a second, I think about opening the van’s back doors, which have their own darkened glass and, also, a convenient bumper to stand on while you’re committing suicide.

The kook wouldn’t want me to die for the environment, would he? I mean, I’m all for helping the planet, but not by fertilizing it with my own decomposing remains.

I skip the doors and listen by the gas cap instead. The van rumbles with sound: bumping, slamming, grunting and . . . voices. Low, rough voices, speaking short, sharp words. As hard as I try, I can’t pick out the kook’s voice. Whoever is talking sounds serious, though. Which means I’m right about the Meals-on-Wheels van being a cover for . . . well, something secretive.

I’m crouched down, wondering what to do next—should I create a distraction, to buy the kook a chance to escape?—when, out of the corner of my eye, I catch the van’s reverse lights kicking on.

The van zips backward. I’ve got a split second to react, before my feet are pulverized to dust and my legs are bloody stumps.

I stumble sideways, whacking my head on a tree. I can’t say if the van runs me over or not, because the world goes dark fast. The last thing I see is a blurry, wiggly logo of a crisscrossed fork and spoon.

  1. # #

I’m still alive, I guess, since my eyes are cracking open and there’s a searing pain in the back of my head.

Dead people can’t feel—at least physical stuff, anyway—right?

I touch my head, searching for blood and wondering how long I’ve been knocked out. I bet it’s only a few seconds—or a few minutes, maybe—since kids my age bounce back fast. Once Dylan Tate (he’s a mouthy skater kid with a half-shaved head) catapulted himself off a roof (it was a low roof, like on a ranch house) and only sprained an ankle. The video went viral. Personally, I thought the stunt was dumb. But whatever.

My head is dry. (Silver lining, again.) And swollen. And throbbing worse than any headache I’ve ever had. When I stand up, I’m confused and woozy and sick to my stomach.

It drifts through my mind to check on the kook, in case he’s in worse shape than me. Because who knows what the shadowy forces have done to him, if they’re willing to squash an innocent kid like a cockroach.

But I’m so tired that I can barely think. Something tells me to get home, pronto, and let the adults (meaning Mom) handle things.

Like the flight attendant said on that trip to Disney: in the event of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first. I won’t be any help to the kook in a coma.

Chapter 31

When I wake up on the couch, the world is on fire. At least that’s how it smells, with the scent of smoke so thick in the air I can taste it. Something must be burning pretty good, too, because a wave of heat has swallowed the living room—unless I have a fever, which is definitely possible.

Slowly, I swing my legs over the side of the couch and sit up. So far, so good. No dizziness or nausea. Only the leftover pulsing of a skull-crushing headache.

I think I can stand up. Maybe even walk. I get on my feet and try out my legs. They’re foreign, like I’m on stilts or something. But they do the job.

Following the smell of smoke, which is getting stronger and more irritating (my lungs are aching) by the second, I head outside and into a strange, chaotic scene.

On our lawn and in our driveway and leaning against Kip’s rented U-Haul are, like, thirty of our neighbors, from tiny coughing babies to tiny coughing old guys, hanging around with their eyes glued to—and their necks craned toward—the kook’s place.

The right side of my body—the side facing the kook’s house—is scorching hot, like I’ve fallen asleep in the sun on a hundred-degree day. Without really trying (something won’t let me look head-on), I catch a glimpse of a big, orange fireball eating its way through the kook’s forest.

I didn’t cry when Dad moved out, even though it might’ve felt good to let off some steam. But thinking about the kook—I mean, John—roasting alive next door has me tearing up pretty bad, unless it’s just the smoke in my eyes.

A swarm of emergency vehicles, from police cars to ambulances to fire trucks, has blocked off the street, somewhere past the Chadwicks’ place. I wonder how long I’ve been asleep, how long the fire has been raging.

Even though a squadron of firemen is attacking the blaze, it’s not weakening any. I’m wandering zombielike toward two police cars, which are jammed end to end across the street, when Mom cuts into my path. To combat the smoke, she’s breathing into her elbow. Her eyes are red roadmaps.

Maybe she’s upset about Kip, I think, glancing at the driveway. His SUV is gone.

“Get back inside,” orders Mom’s tense, muffled voice. “It’s not safe out here.”

I frown. “Tell that to all these people,” I say, waving my arm around. I squint into the crowd, hoping to find John mingling with the rest of the nosy neighbors, watching his house burn.

No luck.

Like everyone else, Mom and I can’t look away from the fire. We stand there like horrified statues, speechless and motionless. Eventually, I ask, “Have you seen a guy in camo fatigues?”

Mom says she hasn’t.

“What about a guy in a plaid shirt and glasses, with spiky teeth?”

“What guy?”

“Never mind.”

“Did they”—meaning the authorities—“say if the neighbor got out?” I can’t exactly tell Mom about the shadowy forces, but asking about a fellow human being’s safety shouldn’t be too suspicious.

Mom shakes her head. “No one knows,” she reports. “He’s so private and, well, not very friendly.”

I bite my tongue. Maybe someday I’ll tell Mom all about John Jay Wallace, who tried to save the world with his crazy plants and disguises and experiments, before an evil gang of mystery men roasted him alive.

Not now, though.

A few more quiet minutes pass. The crowd rumbles with sadness and worry and curiosity.

“Such a shame,” says someone.

Someone else: “Hope it doesn’t get my house.”

And: “How’d it start, anyway?”

Mom keeps fanning her face and hacking into her sleeve and, when she’s got the breath, sighing.

I’m waiting for one of the firemen to come tromping through the trees with John slung over his shoulder, kicking and screaming. But it doesn’t happen.

To distract myself, I say, “Where’d Kip go?” Even though Kip is a sore subject, talking about him is better than thinking about poor, sizzled John.

“Who knows?” says Mom. “Who cares?” She shoots me a sideways smile. “What was I thinking with him, anyway?”

“So you guys are, like, broken up?”

She flashes her hand. “Do you see a ring?”

I do not. “What about the U-Haul?” I ask. “Isn’t he coming back for that?”

“Not unless he wants to be arrested.”

Wow. Mom and Kip are done. I should be happier, but I can’t exactly enjoy the news, with my friend’s life hanging in the balance. Silver lining, though? I’m so busy worrying about John that my head has miraculously stopped hurting. I run my hand over it one last time, to make sure there’s no dried blood for Mom to freak out about.

Negative on the blood. But there is a tender knot I’m going to have to watch out for next time I comb my hair.

A bunch of people shove in front of me, blocking my view of the fire, which is finally dying down. I sidestep for a better look, but the wind kicks a giant smoke cloud in my face. I’m coughing up a lung, when the cops come around ordering everyone to evacuate. Not just the street, but half a block of houses, too, including ours.

  1. # #

Kip left the keys in the U-Haul, which is a stroke of luck, since Mom’s car is long gone. Otherwise, we’d be fleeing the fire on foot.

Mom checks the U-Haul paperwork (it’s crumpled and shoved under the seat, but after some digging around, she finally finds it) and drives us to the rental depot on Central Avenue, where Kip got the truck to begin with.

Mom tells the counter guy we’re “returning the truck for a friend,” and he seems satisfied, once Mom signs the return slip.

On the way out, I chuck the slip in the trash.

I can’t remember if I’ve eaten anything today, and it must be dinnertime. “I’m starving,” I mutter, more to myself than Mom.

Mom says we can’t go home, so we might as well get something to eat. I feel bad about eating if John is dead. But my stomach won’t quit gnawing on itself, so I decide to believe he’s escaped and, any minute, might come strolling into The Terminal, where, after a crazy cab ride (the cabbie drove like he was in the Indy 500), Mom and I have snagged a couple of counter stools.

Old Man Foster must work twenty-four hours a day. As usual, he’s manning the ship—or the railroad car, actually—solo. “What can I getcha?” he asks, bellying up to the other side of the counter.

Mom orders a BLT and a Diet Coke. I get a Lazy Dog, which is a hotdog inside a blanket of puffed pastry, with a bunch of dipping sauces on the side, like ketchup and honey-mustard and spicy barbecue and chipotle-ranch. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

While Old Man Foster ducks and weaves around the kitchen, frying bacon and slicing tomatoes and rolling out pastry dough, Mom decides to call Dad and clue him in about the fire. If the house burns down, we’ll all be homeless, not just him.

For a second, I think that losing the house might be a good thing. I mean, it’d be a fresh start, without all the Rachel ghosts haunting us. But, pretty quick, I feel like a rotten jerk for even letting the idea sneak into my brain.

Mom and Dad talk for five minutes; meanwhile, I spin around on my stool and chat with Old Man Foster—he’s annoyed about people bringing dogs into the restaurant lately, wearing fake service-dog vests—and pretend not to hear what Mom and Dad are saying. But, of course, I could repeat the conversation word for word—at least Mom’s side, anyway.

“Great,” says Mom into the phone. “That would be a big help. Thank you.” Dad says something inaudible. “Okay. See you then.” Mom hangs up. “Your father will pick us up after dinner,” she tells me. “We’re going to get a hotel room for the night.”

“We?”

“Don’t get any ideas,” says Mom, shaking her head. “But, yes, the three of us. Your father hasn’t found a place to stay yet.”

“Oh.”

Old Man Foster slides Mom’s plate across the counter. She digs right in. When my Lazy Dog comes out, it’s more delicious than anything I’ve ever eaten, even though our house may be gone, along with a cool environmental crusader called John Jay Wallace.

Chapter 32

The hotel room is like a small apartment, with a separate living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. Once we check in, we make a quick trip to Walmart, so Mom can grab some clothes. Dad has a couple of suitcases in the trunk of his car, from when he moved out. Even though he’s got forty pounds on me, I’m going to borrow his sweatpants and T-shirts until we can get back into the house.

If we can get back into the house.

The ten o’clock news is about to start. Mom, Dad, and I are squished together on the couch, waiting on pins and needles for the smallest scrap of information about the fire.

“At least we have insurance,” says Mom, bracing for trouble. “Although we’ll never get back—”

She doesn’t have to say what we’ll lose if the worst happens. Dad and I know the fire could wipe out every last trace of Rachel (except for her grave, I guess, which we haven’t visited in a while).

The commercials take forever to end. Finally, a smiling newswoman appears on the screen. She says, “Good evening,” and plows right into the headlines.

There’s been a major accident on I-93, sending eight people to the hospital, including four children under the age of five.

A government official, accused of stealing $360,000 from taxpayers, was “arrested without incident” at his home today.

And, uh-oh, there’s a monster storm brewing in the Atlantic Ocean. A sweaty meteorologist is practically screaming about how the storm could top Superstorm Sandy, if it makes landfall instead of staying out to sea.

The news goes to commercial again, without a peep about John’s house or his forest or maybe even John himself being burnt to a crisp. “Check the Internet,” I say, nudging Mom.

Mom says her phone is dead, which is probably a lie. She just doesn’t want to admit that her eyesight is going bad—or put on her “granny glasses” in front of Dad.

Dad offers to recheck Channel 9’s website. He scrolls through his phone, while ads for arthritis medicine and wrinkle cream play on TV. As the newswoman is coming back on, he says, “We have a winner.”

I practically jump into his lap, trying to read the story. “What does it say? Is our house okay? How’s the neighbor?”

“Hang on,” Dad says, reading the article in his head, with his lips moving. “Good,” he says. “We should be fine.”

“The house?” asks Mom.

Dad reads from the article: “ ‘Despite concerns that the fire would spread, surrounding homes were unaffected.’ ”

“Thank God,” says Mom.

“Can I see?” Before Dad answers, I snatch the phone out of his hand.

I read the article once at hyperspeed and again real slow and a third time as normal as possible, in case I missed anything. But there’s no answer about John’s fate, except a line that says no injuries were reported.

Yeah, but maybe John was hiding somewhere—he’s good at staying under the radar, after all—and the firemen just missed his charred bones in the rubble.

I sure hope not.

“Should we go back?” Mom is asking Dad, when I tune in to the conversation again.

Dad says it’s late. He’s tired. And we already paid for the room, so we might as well use it.

Mom can’t argue, because she doesn’t have a car. So she goes to the bedroom and tries calling me in there to sleep. She’s divided the bed with pillows—half for her and half for me—but I’d rather stay with Dad in the living room, even if it means sleeping on the gross carpet.

I don’t end up hitting the floor, though, because Dad says he can sleep upright in the chair. Which he’s done plenty of times in his recliner at home. The chair here doesn’t look as comfortable, but he knows what he’s doing. If he survived bunking with a thief like Elmo (Dad probably had to sleep with one eye open), he can survive just about anything.

The couch is mine. Even though it’s scratchy, I’m out cold in ten seconds flat. The next thing I know, I’m waking up to the smell of coffee.

The curtains are open and sun is streaming inside. On a stand by the couch is a box of donuts, with the lid partway open.

I glance into the kitchen, where Mom and Dad are sitting across from each other at a small table. Dad’s munching on a chocolate-coconut donut, while Mom sips coffee out of a Styrofoam cup.

I grab a plain glazed donut and join them. But as soon as I sit down, Mom jumps up and says, “Time to go.”

Fifteen minutes later (they didn’t even let me use the bathroom, for Pete’s sake!), we’re rolling up to what was once John Jay Wallace’s house.

My heart sinks. As bad as I’d imagined the damage being, it’s a hundred times worse. It’s like a meteor struck and left nothing but a scorched, gaping crater. And the trees—or the leafless, blackened stumps, I should say—are apocalyptic.

The only hope of John having survived is the Meals-on-Wheels van. Maybe the shadowy forces kidnapped him before they torched the place.

Dad slows down a little, so we can gawk at the destruction, before heading for our driveway. On our porch is Aurora, pacing. “Welcome home, Trumans!” she shouts, as we exit the car.

Mom and Dad head off to inspect our property, which looks the same as we left it, except for a faint black tint—soot buildup, I guess—on the side of the garage.

As soon as Aurora and I are alone, she asks, “Did he get out?”

I shrug. “Dunno.”

“C’mon,” she says, “you must’ve seen something.”

“If you mean a helicopter dropping a lifeline into the fire, then, no.”

She rolls her eyes. “They said there were no injuries on the news.”

“How would they know?”

She grimaces. “You think he’s in there? Dead?”

“Possibly.”

“We have to find out,” she says, stomping off toward the crispy crater. Like always, I’m a step behind. “The fire investigators were here all night,” she goes on. “I think they would’ve—” She stops short and looks me up and down. “What on earth are you wearing?”

“We were evacuated,” I say, trying to explain the baggy sweats and tee.

“You look like a holocaust survivor,” she says. “No offense.”

There’s no comeback for a remark like that, so I just cut her off—physically, I mean—and take the lead. Soon we’re teetering on the edge of John’s charred foundation, which is the only thing left of his house.

We stare down into the pool of soggy ash. The rainforest is gone. “This is . . . horrible,” says Aurora, sniffling back tears. Carefully, we make our way to John’s barn/laboratory. It’s toast, too.

We’re not really looking for John anymore, because there’s nowhere to look; everything has been devoured by the flames. As we reach the border of the blackened-toothpick forest, Aurora sighs heavily. “This is pointless.”

I consider telling her about the Meals-on-Wheels van, but that might get her hopes up. And it’s better to expect the worst and be happily surprised than the other way around.

“Yeah,” I say. “You’re probably right.”

Chapter 33

No matter how hard I scrub (Mom’s got me cleaning the garage with a bucket of hot, soapy water and a sponge mop), the soot from the fire won’t come totally off. The damage is nothing compared to what happened to John’s house, but I still want to erase every last speck of it, until you can’t tell it was there in the first place.

“My turn,” says Aurora, reaching for the mop. She’s been taking over when I get tired or sweaty or just want a break, since it’s ninety-four degrees outside today. “Do you have baking soda? And vinegar? I read somewhere that they clean anything.”

“Um, let me check,” I say. Aurora keeps working on the stains, while I go inside and search under the sink. Miraculously, we do have a jug of vinegar. And in the pantry there’s an open box of baking soda, too. I bring them outside and add them to the soapy water.

I take the mop again, so Aurora can duck into the garage and grab some cool air from the tabletop fan. Hopefully, she’ll chug some water, too, or else she might pass out from that blanket of thick, wavy hair.

I’m checking my work—the baking soda and vinegar are supercharging the soap—when Aurora sneaks back over. “Is it just me,” she says, eyeing the stain, “or does that look like . . . ?”

“What?”

“Don’t you see . . . ?”

I squint. “It’s still there,” I say, ready to surrender. The soot has merged with the shingles; the only option now is to repaint.

Aurora keeps staring at the stain. “That is so trippy.”

“Huh?”

“Trippy. You know, like a trip.” She sighs. “Wild. Crazy. Out of this world.”

“You read too much.”

“You don’t read enough.”

“Anyway, what’s so ‘trippy’ about a giant soot stain?”

“Stand here,” she says, pulling me next to her. “And turn your head this way.” She moves my face, until I can barely glimpse the garage out of the corner of my eye. “See?”

“It would help if I knew what I was looking for,” I complain. But then, all of a sudden, a faint image of the bird-stallion from my dream, aka John’s South American superbird, the one whose feathers make his natural additive work, practically jumps off the garage.

“Amazing, huh?” says Aurora.

I can’t think of a better word, so I just hold my head still—the image is wiggling and cracking, like it’s going to disappear—and picture John riding Charlie off into the sunset.

  1. # #

The apartment by the library was taken, so Dad is renting a studio downtown, halfway between The Terminal and Scoop City. It’s a month-to-month deal, so if he patches things up with Mom, he can dump the place and move back in with us.

In the meantime, he’s been over here a ton, fixing stuff while Mom’s at work (I thought she’d quit tutoring once Kip left, but no such luck), like the leaky faucet in the bathroom and the loose shingles on the roof (that monster storm was more of a bobcat than a lion, but it still did some damage). He’s even got Mom’s porch swing almost finished. All we have to do now is take the pieces outside (I’m his loyal assistant) and put them together.

“Hey, grab those, would ya?” Dad says, pointing at the braces for the A-frames.

I say, “Yup,” and follow him up the basement stairs, with the two-by-fours cradled to my chest. Luckily, the weather has cooled down, so it’s perfect for assembling the swing and maybe even getting a coat of paint on it.

We lay the frame pieces on the lawn. Dad tells me to find his drill, which is charging in the garage, while he zips back inside for the rest of the lumber. (The boards are already cut; we just have to fit them together like a 3-D puzzle.)

I fetch the drill and the hardware (Dad gave me a list of nuts and bolts and washers and stuff last time he was here) and meet him back out front. “Ready?” he says, taking the drill out of my hand.

We work through lunch, making the A-frames and connecting the stretcher (the board that holds the two giant A’s together) and anchoring the chains, so Mom doesn’t splatter when she takes a seat.

The heat is ramping up. Dad says it’s time for ice cream sandwiches, which he must’ve snuck into the freezer when I wasn’t looking.

The ice cream sandwiches are cookies-’n-cream flavored. And delicious. When I snag a second one, Dad doesn’t make a peep.

“What’s next?” I ask, admiring the frame. It looks sturdy enough for a sumo wrestler.

With Dad and me working together, it doesn’t take long to assemble the seat and attach the slats. Once we hook the seat to the chains, we’re pretty much done.

“How’s she look?” asks Dad, beaming with pride.

I’m feeling good, too. It’s cool to make something new out of a pile of useless boards. It’s like the airplane models Dad and I used to build, only bigger. Plus, Mom is going to flip. “Awesome,” I say, taking the swing for a test run. It glides nice and smooth, which is a bonus.

Dad scoots in next to me. We swing in silence for a few minutes, with the sun shining on us and a soft breeze cooling us down. Eventually, Dad says, “They ruled it arson, you know.”

I’ve been trying not to look at the burnt-out crater, which is roped off and covered with NO TRESPASSING! and DANGER! signs. “Oh,” I say, giving the thing a quick glance. “Did they arrest anyone?”

“Not yet.”

My stomach hardens into a knot. “I hope they catch whoever did it.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much,” says Dad. “It was probably just some punk kids.”

He’s wrong, obviously. But I can’t tell him why. So I keep my mouth shut.

We’re getting off the swing—Dad wants to hit it with a coat of turquoise paint (Mom’s favorite color)—when Aurora comes cruising up the street. She’s walking fast and stiff and purposeful, like she’s on a mission. “Be there in a minute,” I tell Dad, as he heads for the garage.

He spots Aurora and smiles. “Take your time.”

I meet Aurora in the street. “I thought you were working at the shop today,” I say.

“Uh-uh.” She glances sideways at Dad’s car. “Your father’s here?”

We wander across the lawn. “We’re working on—” I start to say. But then she cuts me off.

“Can we go inside?” She’s acting fidgety and nervous; her eye even twitches a couple of times. “I’ve got something to show you.”

“I guess.” Dad isn’t really paying attention—not that he’d stop us—so we go to my room and shut the door. “So?” I say.

Aurora reaches under her shirt. For a second, I think she’s taking it off to show me a weird mole or a bug bite or something, which gives me a crazy panicked feeling.

What if Dad walks in on us?

She doesn’t take her shirt off, though. She just pulls out a grimy envelope and shoves it in my face. “He’s alive,” she says. “He sent this.”

I assume she means John.

The envelope is unopened. And filthy with tire marks and grease stains and the footprints of a small, three-toed animal. Something might’ve chewed the corner off, too, because it’s ragged and gaping open, like whatever is inside might come sliding out.

As weird as the envelope looks, the most interesting thing about it is the return address: John H. Watson, 221B Baker Street, Marylebone, London NW1 6XE, United Kingdom. The envelope has also got—one, two, three . . . eight American-flag stamps on it, which seems like overkill for a few sheets of paper. And even though the return address says London, it’s postmarked from Leadville, Colorado.

As usual, nothing John does makes sense.

“Look,” says Aurora, “he’s got a new alias: Dr. Watson, from the Sherlock Holmes stories.”

I recheck the envelope. It doesn’t say “Dr.” anything. But I know better than to question Aurora’s literary knowledge. “What’s that say?” I ask, squinting at the postmark. “August eleventh?”

“Maybe the tenth,” says Aurora. The print is blurry and practically blotted out by grease.

“When was the fire?” I ask, counting back in my mind.

Aurora is quicker. “The eighth.”

“He could’ve had someone else mail it,” I say, doubting John could make it from New Hampshire to Colorado in two—or even three—days. I mean, Colorado is way across the country. And somehow I don’t see John boarding a plane. He probably has a crazy conspiracy theory about airplanes being controlled by evil computers or aliens or something. Plus, he’d be a sitting duck for the shadowy forces.

“Bite your tongue,” says Aurora. “He’s alive; I know it.”

I shrug. “Are you going to open it, or what?” If the envelope wasn’t addressed to Ms. Aurora Louise Fitzgerald, I’d rip into it myself.

“What if it’s something bad? Something illegal?” She forces the envelope into my hand. “You do it.”

I don’t see how an envelope could hurt us—unless it’s full of poison or something. “Fine,” I say. I tear apart the chewed corner, jam my fingers inside, and pull out a stack of folded papers.

Aurora taps her foot and bites her lip. “It’s not a confession, is it? Because if it is, we’re obligated to tell the police.”

I haven’t even unfolded the pages yet. “Jeez, calm down,” I say. I flatten the pages and scan the first one. It’s a note from John, in his shaky, unmistakable handwriting:

Dearest Aurora,

I keep my promises.

Until We Meet Again—

JJ

I’m racking my brain, trying to figure out what John is talking about. But when I flip to the next page, it becomes clear.

It’s a birth certificate. Aurora’s birth certificate, with her father’s name—Rodrigo Zane Fitzgerald—printed in block letters, right beside her mother’s. Suddenly, I feel woozy, like the world has tipped off its axis. “You should sit down,” I tell her, motioning at the bed.

She takes my advice. “Why? Is it bad?” she asks, sighing heavily. “I knew it was going to be—” When I put the birth certificate in her hand, she goes mute.

I don’t know what to say, while she stares holes through the thing. So I look at the next sheet of paper. It’s a newspaper article from twelve and a half years ago—a month before Aurora was born—about Rodrigo Fitzgerald.

The article is sort of sloppy—John has copied it crooked and overlapping—but I get the point pretty quick: Aurora’s father is an ecoterrorist. He’s in prison for plotting to bomb a dam in California and some cell phone towers and an electric power plant or two. I can’t tell from skimming the article if he hurt anyone or not. Either way, he’s locked up for a long time. Which explains why Aurora has never met the guy. And also why her mother has been so hush-hush.

If the birth certificate has stunned Aurora speechless, I don’t exactly want to hand over the article. But what choice do I have? “Brace yourself,” I say, slipping it to her.

Unlike me, she reads the thing word for word. Slowly. Twice. By then, I’ve found the treasure at the bottom of the cereal box—or at least some news that might cheer her up.

The last page is a detailed Fitzgerald-family tree. Even though the writing is microscopic, I follow the branches backward—and sideways—through time, until something amazing appears: eight generations back, around 1790 in England, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald and Aurora Louise Fitzgerald have a common ancestor. Which means Aurora and her idol are related—very, very distantly—after all.

When I deliver the good news, she bursts into tears.

Chapter 34

Aurora and I don’t talk about the secrets John spilled. She just shoves the papers back in the envelope and tucks it under her shirt again. Probably, she’ll bring stuff up (like her father’s arrest, for one thing) with her mother, once she—Aurora, I mean—has had time to think things through.

For now, we go back and forth about John’s fate. Aurora is convinced he’s alive and well in Colorado, but I’m not so sure. Anyone could’ve mailed that letter. And why didn’t John send me anything? I mean, I saved the guy’s life, for Pete’s sake!

After a while, Aurora gets tired of debating me. She says she’s got chores to do at home. I offer to walk with her, but she declines. Which is okay, I guess, because Dad wants my help painting the swing.

Dad and I are just about finished with the first coat, when Mom comes coasting up on her bike. “How beautiful!” she exclaims, when she sees what we’ve done.

“Dad did most of it,” I say, shrugging. “Right, Dad?”

Dad is beaming from ear to ear. “No big deal,” he says. “Glad you like it.” Mom reaches out to touch the swing, but Dad grabs her hand. “Not yet,” he says, gently guiding her away. “It’s still tacky.” (He means “tacky” as in wet and sticky, like our airplane models used to be for days because of the enamel paint.)

Mom asks to use Dad’s car for a quick errand. Of course, he lets her. While she’s gone, Dad and I toss out the paintbrushes and reseal the gallon of paint and arrange the supplies back in the garage. We’re indoors, washing paint splatter off our hands and arms and a million other places, when Mom glides into the kitchen, carrying a pink bakery box.

I assume the box is full of banana-cream whoopie pies from Al’s Bakery, since Dad loves the things and deserves a reward for all his hard work. Personally, I’d take the normal chocolate whoopie pies any day of the week.

Mom sets the box on the table and goes rummaging through the junk drawer. I dry my hands on a dishtowel and nab a bottle of water from the fridge. I’ve just cracked the seal, when Mom holds up a little yellow package of birthday candles. “Sorry this is so late,” she says. “With my schedule and, well, everything that’s been going on”—she must mean Kip turning out to be a thief/jerkwad—“I haven’t had time to—”

No offense, but I’m glad she’s not baking a cake. The omelet she made for Dad was a once-in-a-lifetime miracle. “That’s okay,” I say. It’s actually good that she’s so far behind, because now Dad can share the cake with us. It wouldn’t’ve felt like a birthday without him, anyway.

I sit down at the head of the table, where I’ve blown out most of my birthday candles. Mom gets plates and forks and napkins, while Dad pokes fourteen candles (thirteen for my age and “one to grow on”) into the cake—its devil’s food with vanilla frosting, Mom says—and then goes around the house, hunting for a lighter. He finds one in the medicine cabinet, for some strange reason.

Dad fires up a candle and uses it to light the rest of them. Once the cake is blazing, he and Mom stand close together and start singing Happy Birthday. You’d think they’d be looking at me—it is (sort of) my birthday—but instead they’re staring into each other’s teary eyes.

As they sing, they’re not thinking of me; they’re thinking of Rachel. Of all the birthdays she never got to have. I know, because I’m thinking of her, too.

By the end of the song, Mom and Dad are smiling so big that I forget about being sad. I just puff my lungs full of air and blow out the candles with a single gust.

Mom starts clapping, and Dad puts his arm around her. I can’t help noticing that she lets him keep it there.

  1. # #

The cake is awesome—like an inside-out whoopie pie. Mom, Dad, and I eat half of it. Then it goes in the fridge, so the frosting won’t melt in the summer heat.

We’re still hanging around the kitchen, when I notice Dad staring at the spots (three are visible from where he’s sitting) where Rachel’s pictures used to be.

Suddenly, I get an idea. “Hey, Mom,” I say, “do we still have that collage Great-Aunt Bernie gave us a few years ago for Christmas?”

Mom’s face scrunches up. “Gee, I don’t know.” She glances at Dad. “Ralph?”

Dad’s pretty sure the frame is around here somewhere, like in the attic (90 percent chances, he says) or the garage. While he’s doing the dishes, I pull Mom into the living room. “Where are Rachel’s pictures?” I ask. “We should put some in the collage, for Dad’s apartment.” Part of me wants Mom to say never mind, because Dad will be living back here soon. But she doesn’t.

“Aren’t you thoughtful?” she says, ruffling my hair. She holds up a finger. “Be right back.”

I hijack Dad for a search mission. Ten minutes later, we’re brushing sawdust off our shorts and pushing the attic stairs back up into the ceiling. “What’s so important about this frame, anyway?” asks Dad, waving the collage around.

“You’ll see.”

We rejoin Mom, who’s got every last picture of Rachel spread across the kitchen table. It’s spooky how similar the pictures look. How Rachel never changes. I push the thought out of my mind and focus on Rachel’s eyes. Even at six months old, her eyes were full of intelligence and curiosity. My sister had a good soul, something tells me. And I know I’m right.

When Dad sees the pictures, he gets wobbly in the knees and has to sit down real quick. I pull a chair out for him. Mom smiles softly and pats his shoulder. “Ralph”—meaning me—“thought you’d like to have some of these,” says Mom.

Dad’s pretty choked up, so he can’t talk. He just nods and helps Mom pick through the pictures, until they’ve selected enough to fill the frame.

I hold up a picture of Rachel I’ve never seen before. She’s outside on the front lawn—our lawn—laying on a fuzzy yellow blanket and looking up at the camera (and probably some puffy clouds in the clear blue sky). Rays of sunshine are streaming into the shot, making her look golden and glowing, like an angel. “Can I have this?” I ask Mom.

She stares at the picture for a long time. “I forgot about this one,” she says. I’m expecting her to break down and cry, but she doesn’t. She just stays calm and cool and relaxed. “Why don’t you put it on the fridge?”

Dad clears his throat. “Great idea.”

I stick the picture to the refrigerator with a Donald Duck magnet and a Goofy magnet, from our trip to Disney World. Which somehow makes me feel like Rachel rode Splash Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, right along with us.

And maybe she did.

Chapter 35

Dad has to be back at school in eleven days. (He’s keeping his teaching job, and teachers have to show up early to get things ready for the new school year.) Which doesn’t leave enough time for that fishing trip to the Florida Keys. So instead, Dad and I are hitting the road (we’re still going to sample three diners a day, which we’ve plotted on a bunch of John’s old maps) for Virginia Beach.

Our plan is to stay at cheap motels (not too cheap, though, says Mom; she doesn’t want us bringing home bedbugs!), lounge around on the beach, play Frisbee, paddleboard, and maybe even race some dune buggies. If it rains or we get too sunburnt or whatever, we’ll take off early and spend a night at the Great Wolf Lodge—a giant hotel with a water park inside—on our way back to New Hampshire.

Sounds perfect, if you ask me. I’m almost glad the fishing trip didn’t work out.

“Did you pack enough underwear?” asks Mom, leaning into my room.

I shake my head. “I’m thirteen, you know. I can dress myself.”

Mom throws her hands in the air. “Okay, okay. Just checking.” She tiptoes up behind me. Leaning over my shoulder, she says, “I don’t know what I’ll do without you this week, Ralph.”

I tell her not to worry; I’ll be back before she knows it. Then I haul my luggage—an old army-green suitcase without wheels—to the car.

Dad springs out of the driver’s seat, like a Jack-in-the-box. He pops open the trunk and I cram my luggage inside. Mom comes rushing out after us, with an armload of drinks and snacks. While Dad helps her arrange them in the backseat, I spot Aurora marching up the street.

What’s she doing here? We said our goodbyes on the phone last night.

“Oh, good!” she says, plowing across the lawn. “You’re still here!” She catches Mom’s eye and gives a peppy wave. “Hi, Mrs. Truman.”

Mom nods and smiles and doesn’t correct her about the “Mrs. Truman.”

Dad shoots me a smirk, like he thinks Aurora has a crush on me or something.

I just roll my eyes.

Aurora and I wander around to the backyard. “What’s up?” I ask, as we settle on the picnic table, which has a sickening view of the crispy crater next door. Even though some weeds are starting to fill in around the edges of the hole, like new skin trying to heal a scar, the place still has a heavy death vibe. “We’re about to take off.”

“I talked to him,” she blurts, in a breathless voice.

For a second, I think she means John. But then it dawns on me. “Your father?”

“Uh-huh. Guess what he said?”

I shrug.

“He’s innocent!”

“Okay . . .”

“No, really. He is.” She goes on about a government conspiracy—John would be proud, I think—and her father being framed by a sinister group that sounds an awful lot like the shadowy forces. “Guess what else?”

“Um . . .”

“He’s getting out.”

“Of prison?”

“Yup.” She stares off into the distance, past the charred wreckage. “I’m going to meet him, too.”

Now I’m shocked. “Your mother’s going to let you?”

“It’s already planned,” she says. “We’re flying to California—that’s where he’s been all this time—and waiting outside the prison gates, until they release him.”

“Like a protest, you mean?”

She laughs. “Don’t be ridiculous, Ralph. He knows when he’s getting out, down to the minute: October 20th at 10:00 p.m.”

“Oh.” It’s quiet for a whole minute, probably. “Congratulations, I guess.” I want to ask how she convinced her mother to go along with such a crazy plan (emotional blackmail, I bet) and warn her to be careful, since, even if her father is innocent, prison could’ve made him hard and mean. But I don’t get the chance.

“Ralph!” Dad is suddenly calling. “C’mon! Let’s go!”

I’m about to get on my feet, when Aurora lunges at me. At first I think she’s killing a spider on my shoulder. But then she drops a kiss—a quick, friendly kiss, like you’d give a pretty cousin, maybe—on the top of my cheek, near my eye. “I’ll miss you, Ralph Truman,” she says. “Get back here in one piece.”

“I will.”

“Promise?”

Dad calls for me again. “Promise,” I say. Then I kiss her back, the same way she kissed me.

Out front, Dad’s got the car running. Mom is puttering around in the flower bed. She’s not doing much, just killing time until Dad and I leave. It’s like she can’t go inside without seeing us off.

“Hi, Frenchie,” says Aurora, as the mail lady—she’s tall and thin, with a blond braid hanging down her back—opens our mailbox and starts stuffing envelopes inside.

Frenchie frowns and mumbles, “People keep puttin’ stuff in here that don’t belong.” She wrestles something—a small package, it looks like—out of the mailbox. “Which one of you is Ralph?” she asks, eyeballing the yard.

Dad has the car windows rolled up and the radio on, so he doesn’t answer.

“Ralph?” says Frenchie again, sounding even more annoyed.

Aurora: “Hi, Frenchie.”

Silence.

Mom pushes herself up off the ground. She’s brushing dirt off her hands, when Frenchie says, “Ralph Truman Jr.?”

I jog over and take the package. “Thanks.”

“Tell your friends that this box is for posted mail only,” she says, shoving the rest of our mail at me.

“Okay,” I say, even though I have no idea what she means.

As Frenchie stalks off, Aurora says, “Bye, Frenchie.”

Frenchie just keeps going.

My hands are full. When I try passing the mail to Mom, she asks me to run it inside, because her hands are dirty; meanwhile, Dad starts beeping the horn.

I dash inside, practically tripping over my feet when I miss the step between the garage and the house. I’m about to plop the whole pile of mail—including whatever someone left for me in the mailbox—into the basket on the counter, but then . . .

Nuh-uh.

The package, which I haven’t bothered looking at until now, is a box of Boston Baked Beans. One side is covered with empty-cube doodles. Taped to the other side is a small white envelope with my name on it.

John has sent me a letter. And my favorite candy, which Aurora didn’t get. (He probably likes me best, unless he just doesn’t know her taste.)

The horn keeps blaring outside. I rip the envelope off the box and stuff it in my pocket. Then I bolt out to the car. As Dad and I take off, Mom and Aurora hang around the lawn, smiling and waving and shielding their eyes from the sun.

Half a block down the road, a pterodactyl shriek sounds.

Double nuh-uh.

I don’t say much for the first hour of the ride, because I’m busy imagining what John’s letter says and wondering if I made up that pterodactyl shriek or not. When you want to believe something bad enough, it’s easy to convince yourself that it’s real. “Hungry?” I ask Dad, finally tearing into the Boston Baked Beans.

Dad and I munch through the candy and then guzzle some iced tea. Soon Dad’s looking for a bathroom. Since we’re on the highway, he’s got to wait and wait (he could take a random exit and hope for the best, but he wants to stay on course—and on schedule), until we find a rest area. “You should go”—meaning urinate—“too,” says Dad, when he sees that I’m not getting out of the car.

I shake my head. “Don’t have to,” I say. Which is sort of a lie, but I’m dying to read John’s letter. And I don’t want to do it in front of Dad.

Dad argues with me a little and even threatens that my bladder might explode. But I stick to my guns. “Suit yourself,” he says, shrugging. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Once he disappears inside, I retrieve the letter and rip it open. This is what it says:

Dearest Ralph,

Sorry for the mess. I had no choice. The mission was compromised. Regrouping in an undisclosed location. (Don’t ask.) Keep your eyes peeled, your ears pricked, and your brain off those glowing screens; they’ll rot you from the inside out.

Thanks for being such a trustworthy bag of bones. The planet owes you.

Until we meet again—

JJ

I doubt we’ll ever meet again. And if we do, I probably won’t know, because of John’s disguises. At least we met once, though. That’s pretty cool.

Dad comes back with two giant pretzels. They’re warm and sweet and salty. I take a couple of bites. The salt stings my tongue. “Did I tell you about the neighbor?” I ask, as we merge back onto the highway. The sky is pure blue overhead, but in the distance, a monstrous gray cloud is looming. “About all the crazy stuff we did this summer?”

Of course, Dad doesn’t know a thing. So I take a deep breath and start from the beginning.

TARA LYNNE is the author of ten novels for children, teens, and adults, under various pen names. Connect with her at [email protected] or on [+ Goodreads+]. To learn about giveaways and upcoming releases, follow her blog. If you would like to comment on this book, please consider leaving a review. Your feedback informs other readers and is greatly appreciated by the author! Thank you!

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Victory Knox and the Alligator Hat


The Kook & I

When 13-year-old Ralph’s parents suddenly split up, he’s expecting a boring—and depressing—summer. But his conspiracy-theorist neighbor has other plans. Soon Ralph and his spunky best friend Aurora are swept into a zany adventure involving hidden maps, secret identities, ridiculous disguises, grave robbing, suspicious fires, pterodactyl shrieks, a mad-scientist’s laboratory, scissor-teeth, a jewelry thief, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

  • Author: Tara Lynne
  • Published: 2016-10-18 22:05:29
  • Words: 54934
The Kook & I The Kook & I