His expression was hard to read, but I got the feeling that the fruit-stand ladies were something much, much worse than Mrs. Dodds. He said, "Just tell me what you saw."
"The middle one took out her scissors, and she cut the yarn."
He closed his eyes and made a gesture with his fingers that might've been crossing himself, but it wasn't. It was something else, something almost—older.
He said, "You saw her snip the cord."
"Yeah. So?" But even as I said it, I knew it was a big deal.
"This is not happening," Grover mumbled. He started chewing at his thumb. "I don't want this to be like the last time."
"What last time?"
"Always sixth grade. They never get past sixth."
"Grover," I said, because he was really starting to scare me. "What are you talking about?"
"Let me walk you home from the bus station. Promise me."
This seemed like a strange request to me, but I promised he could.
"Is this like a superstition or something?" I asked.
"Grover—that snipping of the yarn. Does that mean somebody is going to die?"
He looked at me mournfully, like he was already picking the kind of flowers I'd like best on my coffin.
3. GROVER UNEXPECTEDLY LOSES HIS PANTS
Confession time: I ditched Grover as soon as we got to the bus terminal.
I know, I know. It was rude. But Grover was freaking me out, looking at me like I was a dead man, muttering "Why does this always happen?" and "Why does it always have to he sixth grade?"
Whenever he got upset, Grover's bladder acted up, so I wasn't surprised when, as soon as we got off the bus, he made me promise to wait for him, then made a beeline for the restroom. Instead of waiting, I got my suitcase, slipped outside, and caught the first taxi uptown.
"East One-hundred-and-fourth and First," I told the driver.
A word about my mother, before you meet her.
Her name is Sally Jackson and she's the best person in the world, which just proves my theory that the best people have the rottenest luck. Her own parents died in a plane crash when she was five, and she was raised by an uncle who didn't care much about her. She wanted to be a novelist, so she spent high school working to save enough money for a college with a good creative-writing program. Then her uncle got cancer, and she had to quit school her senior year to take care of him. After he died, she was left with no money, no family, and no diploma.
The only good break she ever got was meeting my dad.
I don't have any memories of him, just this sort of warm glow, maybe the barest trace of his smile. My mom doesn't like to talk about him because it makes her sad. She has no pictures.
See, they weren't married. She told me he was rich and important, and their relationship was a secret. Then one day, he set sail across the Atlantic on some important journey, and he never came back.
Lost at sea, my mom told me. Not dead. Lost at sea.
She worked odd jobs, took night classes to get her high school diploma, and raised me on her own. She never complained or got mad. Not even once. But I knew I wasn't an easy kid.
Finally, she married Gabe Ugliano, who was nice the first thirty seconds we knew him, then showed his true colors as a world-class jerk. When I was young, I nicknamed him Smelly Gabe. I'm sorry, but it's the truth. The guy reeked like moldy garlic pizza wrapped in gym shorts.
Between the two of us, we made my mom's life pretty hard. The way Smelly Gabe treated her, the way he and I got along ... well, when I came home is a good example.
I walked into our little apartment, hoping my mom would be home from work. Instead, Smelly Gabe was in the living room, playing poker with his buddies. The television blared ESPN. Chips and beer cans were strewn all over the carpet.
Hardly looking up, he said around his cigar, "So, you're home."
"Where's my mom?"
"Working," he said. "You got any cash?"
That was it. No Welcome back. Good to see you. How has your life been the last six months?
Gabe had put on weight. He looked like a tuskless walrus in thrift-store clothes. He had about three hairs on his head, all combed over his bald scalp, as if that made him handsome or something.
He managed the Electronics Mega-Mart in Queens, but he stayed home most of the time. I don't know why he hadn't been fired long before. He just kept on collecting paychecks, spending the money on cigars that made me nauseous, and on beer, of course. Always beer. Whenever I was home, he expected me to provide his gambling funds. He called that our "guy secret." Meaning, if I told my mom, he would punch my lights out.
"I don't have any cash," I told him.
He raised a greasy eyebrow.
Gabe could sniff out money like a bloodhound, which was surprising, since his own smell should've covered up everything else.
"You took a taxi from the bus station," he said. Probably paid with a twenty. Got six, seven bucks in change. Somebody expects to live under this roof, he ought to carry his own weight. Am I right, Eddie?"
Eddie, the super of the apartment building, looked at me with a twinge of sympathy. "Come on, Gabe," he said. "The kid just got here."
"Am I right?" Gabe repeated.
Eddie scowled into his bowl of pretzels. The other two guys passed gas in harmony.
"Fine," I said. I dug a wad of dollars out of my pocket and threw the money on the table. "I hope you lose."
"Your report card came, brain boy!" he shouted after me. "I wouldn't act so snooty!"
I slammed the door to my room, which really wasn't my room. During school months, it was Gabe's "study." He didn't study anything in there except old car magazines, but he loved shoving my stuff in the closet, leaving his muddy boots on my windowsill, and doing his best to make the place smell like his nasty cologne and cigars and stale beer.
I dropped my suitcase on the bed. Home sweet home.
Gabe's smell was almost worse than the nightmares about Mrs. Dodds, or the sound of that old fruit lady's shears snipping the yarn.
But as soon as I thought that, my legs felt weak. I remembered Grover's look of panic—how he'd made me promise I wouldn't go home without him. A sudden chill rolled through me. I felt like someone—something—was looking for me right now, maybe pounding its way up the stairs, growing long, horrible talons.
Then I heard my mom's voice. "Percy?"
She opened the bedroom door, and my fears melted.
My mother can make me feel good just by walking into the room. Her eyes sparkle and change color in the light. Her smile is as warm as a quilt. She's got a few gray streaks mixed in with her long brown hair, but I never think of her as old. When she looks at me, it's like she's seeing all the good things about me, none of the bad. I've never heard her raise her voice or say an unkind word to anyone, not even me or Gabe.
"Oh, Percy." She hugged me tight. "I can't believe it. You've grown since Christmas!"
Her red-white-and-blue Sweet on America uniform smelled like the best things in the world: chocolate, licorice, and all the other stuff she sold at the candy shop in Grand Central. She'd brought me a huge bag of "free samples," the way she always did when I came home.
We sat together on the edge of the bed. While I attacked the blueberry sour strings, she ran her hand through my hair and demanded to know everything I hadn't put in my letters. She didn't mention anything about my getting expelled. She didn't seem to care about that. But was I okay? Was her little boy doing all right?
I told her she was smothering me, and to lay off and all that, but secretly, I was really, really glad to see her.
From the other room, Gabe yelled, "Hey, Sally—how about some bean dip, huh?"
I gritted my teeth.
My mom is the nicest lady in the world. She should've been married to a millionaire, not to some jerk like Gabe.
For her sake, I tried to sound upbeat about my last days at YancyAcademy. I told her I wasn't too down about the expulsion. I'd lasted almost the whole year this time. I'd made some new friends. I'd done pretty well in Latin. And honestly, the fights hadn't been as bad as the headmaster said. I liked YancyAcademy. I really did. I put such a good spin on the year, I almost convinced myself. I started choking up, thinking about Grover and Mr. Brunner. Even Nancy Bobofit suddenly didn't seem so bad.
Until that trip to the museum ...
"What?" my mom asked. Her eyes tugged at my conscience, trying to pull out the secrets. "Did something scare you?"
I felt bad lying. I wanted to tell her about Mrs. Dodds and the three old ladies with the yarn, but I thought it would sound stupid.
She pursed her lips. She knew I was holding back, but she didn't push me.
"I have a surprise for you," she said. "We're going to the beach."
My eyes widened. "Montauk?"
"Three nights—same cabin."
She smiled. "As soon as I get changed."
I couldn't believe it. My mom and I hadn't been to Montauk the last two summers, because Gabe said there wasn't enough money.
Gabe appeared in the doorway and growled, "Bean dip, Sally? Didn't you hear me?"
I wanted to punch him, but I met my mom's eyes and I understood she was offering me a deal: be nice to Gabe for a little while. Just until she was ready to leave for Montauk. Then we would get out of here.
"I was on my way, honey," she told Gabe. "We were just talking about the trip."
Gabe's eyes got small. "The trip? You mean you were serious about that?"
"I knew it," I muttered. "He won't let us go."
"Of course he will," my mom said evenly. "Your stepfather is just worried about money. That's all. Besides," she added, "Gabriel won't have to settle for bean dip. I'll make him enough seven-layer dip for the whole weekend. Guacamole. Sour cream. The works."
Gabe softened a bit. "So this money for your trip ... it comes out of your clothes budget, right?"
"Yes, honey," my mother said.
"And you won't take my car anywhere but there and back."
"We'll be very careful."
Gabe scratched his double chin. "Maybe if you hurry with that seven-layer dip ... And maybe if the kid apologizes for interrupting my poker game."
Maybe if I kick you in your soft spot, I thought. And make you sing soprano for a week.
But my mom's eyes warned me not to make him mad.
Why did she put up with this guy? I wanted to scream. Why did she care what he thought?
"I'm sorry," I muttered. "I'm really sorry I interrupted your incredibly important poker game. Please go back to it right now."
Gabe's eyes narrowed. His tiny brain was probably trying to detect sarcasm in my statement.
"Yeah, whatever," he decided.
He went back to his game.
"Thank you, Percy," my mom said. "Once we get to Montauk, we'll talk more about... whatever you've forgotten to tell me, okay?"
For a moment, I thought I saw anxiety in her eyes—the same fear I'd seen in Grover during the bus ride—as if my mom too felt an odd chill in the air.
But then her smile returned, and I figured I must have been mistaken. She ruffled my hair and went to make Gabe his seven-layer dip.