When her grandfather is injured in a tractor accident, eighth-grader Cassie accompanies her father and pesky younger brother from Oregon to Ruben's bedside in rural Kentucky. She has never met her grandfather and is determined to learn why he and Dad don't get along. Ruben lovingly welcomes the youngsters, gives them information about farm life, and keeps them entertained with a steady stream of corny jokes. Cassie thinks often about her mother, revealing that she died on a gray, stormy day, but sharing no additional details about the incident. She uses memories of her mother's spirit and no-nonsense brand of advice to fuel her determination to learn the true cause of the animosity between her father and grandfather, a revelation that is surprising and satisfying. Cassie's encounters with Ruben's neighbor Vicki and her son TJ provide additional drama to this tale. The novel's simplicity, humor, action, and warmth will appeal to a broad range of readers.
Laura ScottCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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A Tough Nut to Crack
By Tom Birdseye
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2006 Tom Birdseye
All rights reserved.
My brother Quinton is eight years old and knows everything.
If you don't believe it, just ask him.
Right now he's educating me on how helicopters fly. "Look, Cassie!" he says, twirling around and around in the kitchen. "They spin like this!"
I turn to Dad, thinking that maybe this time he'll actually set Mr. Know-It-All straight and tell him that helicopters don't spin, their blades do. But Dad is busy whistling as he puts away what's left of the spaghetti and that yummy bread he picked up at the bakery. Besides, he'd probably just laugh. He thinks anything Quinton does is cute beyond belief.
So I let it drop. Because anyway, whether helicopters or their blades spin is not the point. The point is that Quinton is supposed to be helping me scrape the dinner plates and load the dishwasher. And he's not.
Which, I have to admit, is getting to me. I'm just about to call him on it, when the phone rings.
"I'll get it!" Quinton shouts and twirls out of control, crash-landing in the trash can, helicopter butt first.
I stroll over to the phone, taking my own sweet time, smiling. Not because Quinton is sitting in garbage goo with a scowl on his face. But because it's nice to know that even though life isn't always fair, and bad things happen that break your heart, there are perfect moments when people actually do get what they deserve. I scoop up the receiver, cheerful as can be. "Hello, Bell residence."
"Well now, ain't this a sight? I finally got the right number!" The words flow into my ear like syrup, slow and smooth, consonants sounding like vowels, everything rounded. "Clear out there in Portland, Oregon, no less!"
For a second I think it's my friend Katie, putting me on, faking a Southern accent for fun. But then I hear: "You must be Harlan's girl. Cassie, right? Well, honey, I'm a voice from the past, your father's past, to be exact. He around? I need to jaw at him. It's about your grandpa Ruben."
"Grandpa Ruben?" I blurt out and instantly regret it. We don't mention that name at our house. Dad won't allow it.
But he's heard me, and it's like someone threw a switch. He goes from light to dark, from chuckling at Quinton the garbage-can man to tight lips and storm cloud eyes. "I'll take it in the bedroom," he says.
I wait until he's on the line and start to hang up. But then I hear that voice again: "Howdy, Harlan. It's me, Vicki Higgins, your old neighbor. Remember? The one who bonked you in the nose with a dirt clod when we were ten?" And I just can't resist. I listen in.
"I hate to rain on your evening parade," Vicki Higgins goes on, "but your daddy's John Deere tractor crashed into my house this afternoon, right through the sliding-glass door, and ended up in my breakfast nook."
Dad takes in a sharp breath. "You okay?"
"Yes, thank the Lord. I was over by the toaster, waiting for a bagel to pop up. Still, it was a bit of a shock. Made me swallow my gum. I yelled at Ruben that he could've at least knocked. But then I realized Ruben wasn't in the driver's seat. No one was."
"Uh-oh," Dad says.
"Uh-oh is right," Vicki Higgins agrees. "I followed the tractor's path of destruction back up the hill, and that's where I found him. "
She pauses, and I can hear her take a deep breath.
"I know you two fell out a long time ago, Harlan, and this is none of my business; but I think you need to come back here lickety-split. You see, when I got to the barnyard, there was your daddy, lying on the ground right where his tractor had run over him."
Whoosh! The next thing I know, it's thirty-six hours later; and I'm standing in a place I was sure I'd never be, trying to focus my dazed brain and jet-lagged eyes in the July morning light.
Everywhere I look, all I see is Kentucky.CHAPTER 2
The Scene of the Crime
Kentucky. I looked it up in the encyclopedia last year in seventh grade. I know the capital is Frankfort, and the state bird is the cardinal.
And I know they mine coal in the mountains and grow tobacco on the farms, and are famous for race-horses and as the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln.
And I know they are pretty much crazy over basketball, especially University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball.
And I know they call it the Bluegrass State, although I can't figure out why. The grass looks green to me.
Still, reading about a place and looking at pictures is one thing.
Standing in the middle of it is another.
Especially if that middle is the middle of your grandfather's farm. The grandfather you've never met. I blink and try to take it all in—the old stone house, the vegetable garden, the weathered barn, the smell of hay, the wild chorus of crickets and songbirds, the hot air so thick with humidity the sky is silver instead of blue—but it's just not computing. This Oregon city girl might as well have landed on Mars.
Then I notice the flattened fence and tire tracks, heading down the hill through a field. This has got to be the "path of destruction" Vicki Higgins was talking about. And I just have to follow it. Who wouldn't?
First I check back over my shoulder. Good, the farmhouse sits dark and quiet. Dad's still asleep. Poor guy, he was worn out after the long flight, the delay switching planes in Chicago, the rental car mix-up.
Quinton is snoozing, too, curled into a ball with the pillow over his head, as usual.
If Mom were still alive, she'd be up. And right beside me saying, "Let's see what this is all about, Cassie." I step over the splintered fence planks and into the field.
The grass is covered with morning dew. In seconds it soaks through my running shoes and gives me soggy socks.
I walk on, though, and on, and on down the hill, getting more and more amazed with each step. That a tractor could go so far on its own, as if it were aiming for Vicki Higgins' house. As if Grandpa Ruben had aimed it.
I stop at the thought. No, surely not. No one, not even Grandpa Ruben, would do that.
Or maybe he would. He's not one of those nice grandpas, the perfect kind I'm supposed to have, like in magazines and TV ads. The cold, hard truth is that he's a mean old man and is no doubt one of those rotten neighbors that nobody likes, a farmer Scrooge, who hates everyone and their pets.
Especially everyone who is happy. He probably got mad at Vicki Higgins because she sings while washing her car, or laughs too loudly while sitting on the back porch, and he can hear it all the way up at his house.
So the other day he decided that he'd had it with her. He aimed his tractor straight at her breakfast nook, gave it lots of gas, then bailed out, thinking he'd fake falling off and nobody could blame him for the damage. But he tripped and took a nose dive, and the tractor ran over him.
Which some people would say serves him right, seeing as how he was launching an attack on Vicki Higgins. I know he's the only living grandparent I've got, but no wonder Dad doesn't come back to Kentucky to visit. No wonder he hasn't wanted Quinton and me to meet him. No wonder we can't even mention his name.
Just look at what he did to Vicki Higgins's house. There it is now, couldn't miss it. She's tacked a blue tarp over the hole where her sliding-glass door used to be.
And there is the crime weapon, Grandpa's tractor. The exhaust stack is bent over, and the green paint is scratched off on the side, leaving jagged silver scars. I ease across Vicki Higgins's gravel driveway, eyeing that thing the way a knight would a wounded dragon.
And so at first I don't notice the big ball of feathers sitting on Vicki Higgins's side porch. The big ball of feathers that rustles to life. Finally I catch the movement in the corner of my eye and turn to see that it's a turkey.
I've always liked turkeys, and not just sliced on a sandwich with mustard and mayo. I think they're cute, in an ugly-cute kind of way. "Hey, there," I say, happy to finally meet one in person. I kneel down, holding out my hand like you would for a puppy. "How you doing, turkey?"
The turkey rustles its feathers again and stands up. Wow, it's a hefty one! I had no idea they could get that big. It turns its head my way.
"Come here," I say. "Come to Cassie!"
A strange look flickers in the turkey's dark little eyes.
It gobbles once.
And rampages off the porch right at me.CHAPTER 3
Just Like Old Times
The fact that I'm being attacked by a turkey doesn't immediately sink in. To me turkeys have always been bowling-ball birds that strut around gobbling and acting goofy, not feathered maniacs out for blood. Finally, though, the bottom line becomes clear: Reaction needed; run for it!
Which I do, double time.
The turkey is much faster than I ever would have thought possible. As quick as I am on my feet—I hold the Highland View Middle School girls' record in the 100-meter dash, not to mention the anchor position in the 1,600 relay—the turkey stays right with me, pecking at my heels.
"Hey, leave me alone!" I yell and cut a quick left.
The turkey cuts a quick left, too.
I whip around the back of a shiny red car, gravel flying out from under my feet.
The turkey is right on me, gobbling with every peck.
Around and around we go. I reach back and swat at it, but that just makes it madder. It pecks me in the calf, and it hurts like crazy. I jump up on the hood of the car, shrieking, "Owww!"
I look up to see a boy charging across the lawn, waving a toothbrush like a sword. Toothpaste foam flies with every word.
"Get back in your pen, you idiot bird!"
In a heartbeat the turkey turns on him and charges at full speed, wings flapping. The boy's eyes go wide. "Uh-oh!" He digs his heels in to stop; but his feet go out from under him, and he plops down on the grass, right in the turkey's line of fire.
A woman in a green dress rushes to the rescue, though, and she's armed with a broom. "That's enough out of you!" she says and takes a swipe at the turkey.
It jumps out of the way, gobbling furiously, but does retreat a bit.
"Back where you belong, Tom, or we'll be talking an early Thanksgiving!" the woman warns. With little sweeping motions she herds Tom Turkey across the driveway. "Go on now, into your pen, or else!"
Gate latched, the woman runs her fingers through her hair and lets out a big sigh. "Dang bird. He's enough to make me take up an ax."
Now I recognize the voice, the Southern accent. This, of course, is none other than Vicki Higgins. And suddenly it occurs to me that she might not be too happy to have a member of the Bell family on the hood of her shiny red car, or anywhere near her property, for that matter, even if I never have met Grandpa Ruben, much less driven a tractor. "I'm sorry," I say, easing myself down onto the driveway. "I didn't mean to bother you. I just had to see "
I point to the scene of the crime. Vicki Higgins glances over at her bashed-in house, then back at me. Ashamed at what my mean old grandpa did, I look down.
That's when I notice Vicki Higgins's shoes. High heels. I know it's not the time, but I can't help wondering: How does she keep her balance in those things? Especially on gravel?
"So we finally meet," Vicki Higgins says.
I look up to see her grinning. "Don't worry, honey, I won't bite. I promise. I've had my shots!" And just like that, she's by my side with her arm over my shoulder and guiding me around the boy, who is still plopped in the grass with a stunned look on his face.
"Get up, TJ," Vicki Higgins says to him, "you're drooling."
TJ blinks, then goes red-faced. Frantically wiping toothpaste foam from his chin, he scrambles to his feet. He spins and runs ahead of us into the house, tripping on the doorsill as he goes.
Vicki Higgins laughs. "That boy's a wonder on the soccer field, but can't walk a straight line when he sees a pretty girl."
This catches me by surprise. (Compliments always do.) I fight not to blush, but that's not the kind of thing you can control. I feel my face going hot, like TJ's. Vicki Higgins acts like she doesn't see it, even though I can tell she does. She gives me a pat on the back and ushers me inside.
It's not often I go speechless. But when I see the mess my grandpa made of Vicki Higgins's breakfast nook, all I can do is stand there with my tongue-tied mouth hanging open. It looks like something you'd see on the six-o'clock news, a for-real disaster. If it were my breakfast nook, I'd be mad with a capital M.
Vicki Higgins doesn't seem all that concerned, though. Between swigs of coffee she's putting the milk and cereal away, wiping the counter down, and talking pretty much nonstop about that turkey.
"Crazy old bird thinks he's a watchdog. Got out of his pen for the umpteenth time last week and attacked the UPS truck. Chased it out the driveway, pecking at its back tire. Gonna get run over, if he's not careful. Whoever hits him is gonna have a dent in their fender, though. He's a big one. Weighs close to fifty pounds. Will eat just about anything, except his vegetables. He and TJ are one with the world on that issue. Put a bowl of peas in front of either one of them, and they run like it's buckshot. Old Tom loves lasagna, though, and spaghetti, and cookies. And Trix. Give him a handful of Trix, and I'll swear he grins."
She demonstrates, showing me what I take to be a turkey smile.
I giggle, which she seems to appreciate.
"C'mon, honey," she says, "I'll give you a ride up the hill. It's on the way to work and soccer camp."
She grabs a briefcase and keys off the counter. "TJ!" she shouts. "Hurry up, or you'll be late and have to run extra laps again!" She winks at me. "I'm not a nag but can do an exceptional imitation."
We head back outside, where it's getting hotter by the minute. Tom Turkey has moved into the only shade in his pen, up against the garage, where he's pecking at the ground. He stops and gobbles at me, as if to say, "This is my turf, and don't you forget it!"
Vicki Higgins waves him off. "Crazy old bird!"
TJ races out of the house, lugging his soccer bag. He takes the time to thumb his nose at Tom Turkey but still beats us to the car, where he hops into the back. "You can sit up front," he mumbles to me.
"Thanks," I say loud and clear. No mumbling out of Cassie Bell.
Now that I'm not being chased around and around Vicki Higgins's car, I notice that although it's pretty old, it's still cool, real sporty in fact, like something a teenager would drive. Mustang it says on the dash.
Vicki Higgins starts the car, and the CD player blasts out at us, making me jump. "Oops, sorry," she says and turns it down a little bit. "Can't get enough of that classic rock." We roar up a gravel lane to the sound of the Beatles tune "All You Need Is Love," and Vicki Sing-along Higgins.
I catch TJ stealing looks at me in the side mirror but do a good job of ignoring him. Vicki Higgins wheels us around to the front of Grandpa Ruben's house, where we find Dad sitting on the porch swing with Quinton.
His eyebrows go up when he sees me. He stands and walks toward the car. "Quinton and I thought you were still asleep in the upstairs bedroom."
Vicki Higgins is out from behind the wheel and around to meet him before I can even find the door handle. "Howdy, Harlan!" she says, and they shake hands. She introduces TJ, who shakes Dad's hand, too, and calls him "sir."
Dad chuckles at that, which is good to hear. He's been way too serious since the phone call about Grandpa Ruben.
I watch it all, thinking that Vicki Higgins is one of those "can-do" people, full of confidence and energy, just like Mom. She has a way of making you feel like you've known her all of your life, even though you just met. I like it.
Quinton does, too, that's obvious. He's drawn to Vicki Higgins like Tom Turkey to a bowl of Trix, especially after she compliments his favorite T-shirt, the dark blue one with the red lightning bolt across the front.
We're all standing around grinning and talking—"Just like old times!" "Don't look a year older, do I? Ha!" "My, Quinton, but you are a big boy!"—until Dad glances at his watch and goes dark again.
He doesn't say a thing. Doesn't need to. It's written all over his face. Time to go visit Grandpa.
Excerpted from A Tough Nut to Crack by Tom Birdseye. Copyright © 2006 Tom Birdseye. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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