I wasn’t really upset about the things you’d expect me to be upset about. I mean, I wasn’t really upset at all. That was more for Terri. For a boy entering junior high, I wasn’t as attached to my friends and surroundings as you’d expect. When we were told that we’d be moving in a matter of three weeks, I didn’t feel betrayed or like my parents hadn’t considered my feelings. They’d never given me reason to think they made any decision without first considering my and Terri’s… I don’t know. Well-being?
So if we were moving right before school was starting, I knew they had their reasons.
Those overblown reactions I left to Terri. At 15, he was only two years older than me, but made a fuss enough for the both of us. It was almost embarrassing how fake it was. He talked about his friends and his classes (Because he was so concerned about his studies, even though he hadn’t finished an assignment since an under-the-sea diorama he had to make in 6th grade for some science report about dolphins. Truth be told, I think he still doesn’t know they’re actually mammals.). It was tragic that we were leaving at such a formative time in his life. He could almost drive for crying out loud, he was practically an adult.
He was upset about these things because he knew he was supposed to be. And that was that.
The car was quiet most of the way. That was the only part that came close to aggravating me. It took 26 hours to go from Dodge City, Kansas to Poll Oak, Vermont. That gave my dad just enough time to think he could make it in one shot if we made sure to stop frequently for energy drinks. Terri hated that our dad drank energy drinks, thought he was trying too hard to be trendy. I had my suspicions, too, because most adults just drink coffee, but our father informed us that energy drinks were better because “that crap (coffee) turns my stomach into a mud factory and we definitely don’t have time for that if we’re going to make it.”
I think the secret to good parenting is directly addressing your personal bathroom issues with your children.
But this self-assurance was enough to make my mother agree with him in the way she only does for things that don’t truly make a difference. I’m pretty sure it all came down to the fact that the moving van we were renting was charged by the hour, so my dad would sooner die than waste eight payments on the recommended amount of sleep. I can’t blame him.
I rode with my mother in our SUV behind the moving van that held my dad and Terri. Terri’s and my responsibilities were to keep our respective parents awake during the latter portion of the trip. We left when it was still dark so that we could sleep first and be awake by the time our parents started feeling like they might doze off a bit. What was scariest was that I would still nod off during the times when I was supposed to keep my mom awake. I’d jerk my head back up in fear, convinced we’d be careening off the road, but then find that her eyes were still peeled. I think moms have some sort of thing in their brains that keep them from falling asleep with their kids in the car. We didn’t talk a whole lot, but we didn’t have anything else to occupy our time, either. There were half a dozen CDs in the car, but we burned through those before we made it all the way out of Kansas. I’d had an iPod up until the week before we were told we were moving. It fell in a stream while my friends and I jumped around. I couldn’t read in the car, either. I got carsick trying to follow the words side to side while I could still see the road moving out of the corners of my eyes. I threw up once on a family road trip, and that was enough to pass the “No Reading in the Car for Cade” law. Not even magazines or comics.
I felt gross by the time we finally pulled up to the house. The rooms had been furnished already, so there wasn’t a whole lot to be done as far as heavy lifting. Mom and Dad had come up a week before to take care of the big things like beds and big furniture. They took our “back up” sheets to put on the beds so they’d still be familiar and I wouldn’t feel like I was sleeping on some old, dusty grandma bed.
But the house was an old, dusty grandma house anyway.
It was this old-timey Victorian house, three stories, though most of the third was a walk-in attic. My mom loved that even though Terri and I tried to make it clear to her that that was a sure sign that this house was haunted. She didn’t buy it and we pretended we were joking.
Our rooms were all on the second floor, the first floor committed to a small entryway that split off into three large rooms that connected in a horseshoe. The left was the kitchen which I assume had been renovated because the countertops all looked new and polished. And I assume that this house hadn’t been built with a stainless steel fridge and microwave. My mom loved it almost as much as my dad. The kitchen was the selling point for him. There was a pot rack suspended in the center of the kitchen and there was a whole corner in the moving van devoted to the kitchenware he’d gone out and bought to clutter that rack. He’d wanted to go to culinary school up until he actually applied to college at which time he settled to be a consultant like everyone else who wanted a steady job but didn’t want to know exactly what it was they actually did.
The room on the right was the family/living room. There was a fireplace and there was a wall that had been added to stick out of one side to make the room seem sort of split in half, I guess to make it seem like there was less useless space. We had one of those L-shaped couches that everyone thinks is really good for watching movies that we wedged into that corner. It’s a nice couch, but if you’re the youngest, you’re always going to end up in the corner of the L. There were ottomans and a small coffee table in the van that we’d move in there, too. And my dad’s recliner. Every dad needs a recliner, I think.
The center room used to be some sort of ballroom, I think. All it was was a giant rounded room. There was a golden ring in the ceiling where there used to be a light fixture, but it was long gone now. My parents didn’t know what to do with the space- there was nothing to hide the fact that it was needlessly large like the wall did in the living room. They decided to make it the dining room, but all that meant was that we put the table in the center of the room with the four chairs around it. It echoed, the floor a polished hardwood instead of the carpet that covered the other two rooms. When we ate dinner later that night, it sounded like we were at a restaurant, our forks clanging back at us as they hit the plates. There were two sets of stairs on either side of the archway that led into the room from the entryway. They didn’t spiral or turn like I’d expected them to. They just went straight up, each narrow and steep.
The staircases met in another wide, but now circular room. There was a wide window facing the backyard, a huge stretch of grass with a few trees here and there. Way out there were some light woods. The window had a window seat at the sill and cabinets underneath. There was our loveseat and another couch set up facing where our second TV would probably go. The room wrapped in a full circle, leading off into our respective bedrooms and a bathroom. The order from left to right went: me, bathroom, Terri, window, a closet, my parents. On the opposite side of the window wall, tucked behind and between where he stairs opened into the room, was another narrow staircase, though this one did bend back on itself. I went and dumped my backpack in my room, off to the left of the circular room, before returning and ascending the stairs.
There was a hallway, wider than I expected, that ended in an archway identical to the one that led from the entryway into the ball room. Before the archway, to the right was a nook where a furnace sat, cast-iron and cold. Before I could go any further, I heard my mother call me down.
Cheryl was an interesting woman. She was the real estate agent out here and had showed us the house. It was like any and every real estate agent from a movie had come to life and combined into her, skittering around the house, clipboard in hand, shuffling in her polka-dotted black and white skirt, solid sweater, dress shirt, and poofy scarf tucked into the collar of the sweater, her blonde hair in a bob.
“Have you seen it yet?” She asked as I came down. She was talking about the study. There was a basement that we could get to from a door in the entryway that the previous owners had put in. There was an office and an additional bathroom down there. It was very modern and I was secretly glad it was in the basement. I don’t care about how things look a lot, but there’s something wrong about a modern office being in the middle of an old grandma house like this.
Cheryl stayed for dinner after we unloaded everything. Our plates clattered and our forks clanked and we found out that there may actually be a script for real estate agents because Cheryl ran out of things to say after about ten minutes.
“Ms. Lincoln,” my mom would remind me when I called Cheryl by her first name.
“It’s alright,” Cheryl smiled. “I don’t mind. Are you excited for school, Cade?”
School started a couple days after we unpacked the last box. We had to drive into another town for school, so I lived in Poll Oaks but went to school in Orange Park, proving my idea that I could only live in two-word cities. Terri was dropped off down the road at the high school while I walked to my English class and sat next to a kid with black hair cut close to his head. “Hi,” he introduced himself, “I’m Dill.” I shook his hand and told him I was Cade. Our teacher rose.
“Alright, everyone quiet down and listen up.” She wasted no time. “I waste no time. I expect everyone to give me their attention as soon as I begin to speak, every time I speak. I’m Ms. Copper. You’re in the seventh grade now, and it’s time to start acting like adults.”
I didn’t feel like an adult. I’ll start acting like an adult as soon as I start to grow hair under my arms.
“This year we’re going to begin with To Kill a Mockingbird. Does anyone know something about this book?” She asked of the class of a dozen of us.
Dill raised his hand. “There’s a boy named Dill in it,” he answered.
“Yes,” she nodded curtly. “Thank you, mister…”
“Dill,” he nodded back. “Dill Luck, ma’am.”
Her expression was short of amused. Dill leaned over to me. “I was named after him,” he explained. “My parents said it was to remind me to always be a good friend.”
Ms. Copper must have overheard him because she snorted and corrected him: “Dill Harris is a liar, storyteller, and bully to Boo. He’s a brat.”
Dill shrunk in his seat.
Ms. Copper wasted no time.
Things were very uneventful for those first few weeks. Vermont was colder, but the lack of anything to do only served to remind me that I had moved from nowhere to nowhere, but it was colder at this nowhere. Dill and I hung out some, mostly inside playing video games because the woods behind our house were pretty thin, and most of the limbs of the trees were too high for us to reach.
“You’ll find things to do, honey,” my mom reassured me. “Terri is getting along just fine.” It was true. He’d made friends with a couple people that could drive, so he went out with them a lot. Mom failed to realize that he was having fun because he was getting out of Poll Oaks Middle of Nowhere I’ve Already Read To Kill a Mockingbird Three Times Now, Vermont.
“You could visit the neighbors,” she suggested. There were two houses on either side of us, the houses similar to ours in style, but inhabited by retired couples who were frankly not long for this world.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Why don’t I just go visit a nursing home?”
“Don’t be unpleasant, Cade,” she reprimanded.
“I’m not being unpleasant. I’m being sarcastic and there is a difference,” I groaned.
I’d filled my room by that time with the handful of books I had, my bin of legos, and the various other toys I’d held onto not because I still played with them, but really because they took up space. I’d covered the high walls with the couple posters I had, and was writing in a journal I had on the floor. I kicked my legs as I laid on my belly and scribbled pictures in the margins, illustrating the characters for the story I was writing. They never looked how I wanted them, too, but I knew I could draw well, better than anyone else in my class. Ms. Copper gave me an A on a report over the courtroom scene in To Kill a Mockingbird and I think it was because of my drawing of Atticus I stapled to it.
My toe hit the hardwood floor and I heard a creak.
By now I was pretty familiar with the creaks in the house, but this was a new one. Or at least one I’d never heard. I looked up and narrowed my eyes, tapped my toe on the floor again.
There was a pattern of raised squares along the lower parts of the wall, about 2 feet tall and wide each. I watched the one to my right as I continued kicking the floor enough to prompt the creak without stubbing my toe.
The square was bouncing around the edges just a little bit, enough to shake and make a slim shadow that gave away that the square opened. I stood and began looking through my desk and shelves to find something to slip in the crack between the square and the wall.
I’d tried fixing my lamp a day before and had ended up making it worse, but I still had the screwdriver. I got that and a hardcover Where’s Waldo? book and crouched in front of the square.
I wedged the screwdriver into the slot along the edge of the square, and lifted it enough to sneak the corner of the book into the space. I lifted it enough to slip the book in, shimmying my way down the edge until I had a good enough chunk to get some leverage, and I pulled.
There was a hinge on the opposite side, and there was a snap and a sudden draft of old air coming into the room. It didn’t smell like I always thought it did when it happened in movies. But there was dust and I had to go to the other end of the room for a second until it cleared.
There was a compartment behind the square that I shined my flashlight into, poking my head in only after I’d swung the light around some. It was about two yards deep, three wide, and five feet high so I had to hunch over some.
In the back corner there was a box.
I poked my head back out of the opening to check if anyone had come into my room in the last minute; maybe they’d heard the snap.
I turned back to the box and pulled it back out into my room, barely sliding it through the opening. Crate’s probably a better word. It was like those old wooden ones that they used to deliver milk in. Inside was a smaller box, also wooden, but lunky and lopsided and with a top that was hinged though there were nails where the screws should have gone, a gape between the top of the box and the lid.
There was an old envelope, yellowed, but the address was ours, though the recipient was Filmore Temptower. There was no return address. There was a small journal, too, pocket-sized, and some other loose-leaf papers that were crumpled up, but didn’t say anything.
I opened the smaller box and it began turning and I heard a twang and then another. Inside was a spool that had ridges and raised dots, spinning around, little scraps of metal hitting them and pulling on one another.
A music box.
But it was handmade. That was weird. I guess I’d always thought the only people who made music boxes were people who knew how to, but this clearly showed that wasn’t the case. The spool kept spinning, and the tines would miss ridges and bumps and the ones that they did strike let out unbalanced sounds. I closed it and replaced it in the crate.
The journal was filled, every page covered in ink and pencil and even crayon. I flipped through it a few times quickly, lingering on the pages that were more colorful. As I began to try and read, a sound caught my ear again, coming from the compartment.
A sheet of paper drifted down, floating side to side before resting on the wood. I crawled over to it and turned it over. There was crayon all over it, a drawing. I couldn’t tell what the characters were at first, but at the top of the paper, in the left corner was written, letters uneven and sporadically capitalized: “WinNiE”
I looked at the picture again, looking for yellow and red. I found both, but none of them looked like Winnie the Pooh.
No, the red was in triangles at the top, white triangles between them, and then in stripes going down the whole page. The yellow had brown around it too and black spikes in what appeared to be a mouth. And there was a big gray blotch with a tail on either side.
It was an elephant. That meant the yellow was probably a lion. And the red and white.
This was a circus.
Where did it come from? I leaned my head back inside to look above the compartment opening and shined my flashlight. There were more. Dozens and dozens of drawings in crayon, most of them just variations of the one I held, but they were all pictures of the circus. They all had Winnie’s name at the top, so now I assumed it was the kid or whoever drew them. I stood in the secret tiny room for a good while and looked at each one. Some were clowns, some were just the tent, one was a mountain with the tent really small in the foreground.
Terri said Hitler went to art school and I was trying to figure out a way that this might be his secret stash. But this was clearly from a child. There were words on many of them, but they were all spelled phonetically, according to a child. So you had things like “definitely” being spelled “defle” and “elephant” looking like “lafint”.
The dust made it hard to breathe and stay in there for too long, but before I crouched down to leave again, one caught my eye, only the corner showing from behind the picture on top of it.
It wasn’t a circus. It was a person, a man with a hat. And he was holding hands with a boy in overalls (or otherwise blue jeans and a blue tank top). There was a smaller girl with yellow hair next to the boy, but they weren’t holding hands. Hers were up, on the sides of her head, and she was standing next to a round rock that stuck up out of the ground. And off in the right corner was another girl, bigger than the blonde one.
Winnie was in the left corner like usual, but the word under the little blonde girl… That word was the same even when you spelled it by sounding it out.