Chapter 1: Ahead of Myself
“Quick!” shouts Victor. “Quick, Alan, run for it!”
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“They’re everywhere! Hurry!”
He runs, pulling me after him by the neck. The dust cloud rises all around us, and the sound is in my ears – once heard, never forgotten – the buzz-saw whine of a million angry enemies. I can’t get at them with the aluminum construction on my head. I run as fast as I can, considering that I can hardly see where I’m going.
“Help! Christopher!” I cry. “Help, anyone!”
Wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.
Sorry. You’re probably wondering what on earth is going on. Who’s Victor? you ask. Who’s Christopher? What aluminum construction? Who are these angry enemies, and why can’t you get at them?
Fair enough. Let me go back a bit further, and start again. Ahem.
It all began on a beautiful spring morning about thirteen years ago. Cobourg, a pretty small town beside Lake Ontario – no, no, make that a small, pretty town beside Lake Ontario – was bathed in sunshine. The sky was a cloudless blue. The birds were singing their little heads off in the bushes outside the window of the hospital room. Inside that room was a tired new mom named Helen Dingwall. Mrs. Dingwall to you. She was learning how to put a cloth diaper on a baby. “Under and over,” she muttered. “Around and up and pin it like… this. Oops!” She stabbed the baby with the pin. The baby opened his mouth wide and screamed.
“Oh, you poor thing!” my mom said to me. I screamed some more.
No, wait again. Come to think of it, that’s probably too far back.
I’ll try one more time. Fast-forward through my early years – teething, disposable diapers (finally no more pins!), singing “Clementine” to my nana while standing up in my crib, kindergarten, measles – and get to last June. I went to New York City to visit my dad. (My parents are divorced. No big deal. Maybe yours are too.) While I was having adventures with a snotty rich kid and her dog Sally (long story, no time to get into it now), my mom met Christopher.
He’s important to this chapter of the Alan Dingwall chronicles, so I’ll describe him right off. Christopher Leech: tall and thick, with thick dark hair and a thick dark mustache. Thick arms too – he’s really strong. He can lift our big armchair over his head with one hand, holding on to the chair leg. He spends a lot of time lifting weights at the local YMCA – that’s where he met my mom. He’s kind of handsome, I guess. He has a lot of big sweaters. He’s my mom’s age, more or less. Old.
Shortly after I got back from New York, he moved in with us. He has a place of his own, but he stays with us for days on end. Sounds cosy, but it isn’t really. There’s something about him I don’t like. Quite a few things, actually. His name suits him: Leech by name, and leech by nature. I don’t like the way he dresses. I don’t like the way he checks himself in the mirror. I don’t like the way he peers around when he kisses Mom. He’ll be giving her a peck on the cheek, and all the time his eyes are moving around the room, as if he’s on the lookout for the cops. I wonder if he’s on the run? It wouldn’t surprise me.
To be honest, I don’t like him kissing Mom at all.
We don’t get on very well. He started off calling me my boy, and I told him I wasn’t his boy. “I already have a dad,” I said. “I’m his boy, not yours.” Mom sighed, and Christopher apologized. Yesterday he tried calling me Young Dingwall. That didn’t last long. “What are you up to tonight, Young Dingwall?” he asked.
“Playing cards, Old Leech,” I replied.
He choked, spilling beer all over. “Why, you little…,” he began, and then caught himself.
In the evening Mom called me downstairs from the TV room. “Alan, I think we should have a talk,” she said. I hate that phrase. I shuffled from foot to foot in our living room. We were all alone in the house; Christopher had gone back to his place to get some more sweaters.
“Sit down, first.”
She patted the couch beside her. I took the yellow chair. I sat with my feet on the floor, then spun around so that I was sitting upside down with my feet dangling over my head.
“Alan, sit straight!” A harsh voice. You’d think she’d be nice, seeing as she works with troubled kids all the time, but that’s the way it goes. I swung around so that my head was right way up.
“What should we talk about?” I asked.
“You and Christopher.”
“Old Leech?” I smiled. I couldn’t help it.
She folded her arms and spoke sternly. “I’m very worried about the way you and he don’t get along. I’m disappointed in you, Alan. Christopher has tried to get along with you. He has done his part. He has extended the hand of friendship, and what have you done?”
Where does Mom get these phrases? Hand of friendship, indeed.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You have slapped it aside. Christopher has gone out of his way to… Alan, look at me!”
I was staring out the window. I don’t know about you, but when someone is yelling at me, I find it hard to stare deeply into their eyes and say yes, yes, go on. I turned back to Mom.
“Christopher has extended the olive branch to you,” she said. “And you have…”
I didn’t know what you did to an olive branch. “Eaten it?” I said.
“You have refused it. This situation must not go on. Don’t you see, I care about you. So does Christopher. Both of us do. And that is why –”
“Here’s Victor,” I said. I was looking out the front window again. “He’s early. The game doesn’t start until 7:00.”
“Sure. We’re going to Nick’s tonight.”
“Uh-huh.” I don’t know why, but cards have really caught on this summer. We play all the time. Poker, mostly. Victor’s dad found us an old carousel full of chips, and we carry it from basement to basement. I usually end up with most of the chips.
Victor Grunewald is my best friend. He’s part of the story too. We’ve been in the same class since kindergarten. We looked like twins back then, but we don’t now. He’s grown up and out, and all I’ve grown is more red hair, and more freckles. I come up to his chin now, which isn’t a great idea since he’s beginning to get these pimples.
He’s a nice guy, Victor. Very polite. He rang the doorbell and waited for me to come to get him, instead of just walking in, which is what I do at his house. He said hello to my mother.
She frowned at him. “I’m afraid that Alan won’t be able to play cards with you tonight, Victor. We have some things to discuss.”
He shot a look at me. I shrugged.
“Oh, sure, Mrs. Dingwall. I understand. Maybe tomorrow, or the next day.”
She hesitated. “Actually, Victor, Alan is going to be busy for a few days.”
Mom turned to me. “Yes, Alan, you are. Christopher is taking you on a canoe trip.”
“Wow!” said Victor.
“What?” I said. I wasn’t talking to Victor.
“You’ll leave tomorrow morning, and be gone all weekend.”
“What?” Still not talking to Victor. “But, Mom, I’ve never been on a canoe trip. I’ve never been in a canoe.”
“Christopher loves canoeing. He knows all about it. That’s why I suggested the trip. I think it would be a good way for you and Christopher to get to know each other better.”
“But I don’t want to –”
“Alan!” A warning note in her voice.
“You are one lucky guy, Alan.”
“You can be quiet!” Now I was talking to Victor.
Just then Christopher pulled into the driveway, in his fresh-waxed cherry-red jeep with roll bar, extra chrome bumper, mudflaps, and fog lamps. Another thing I don’t like about him. He swung himself out of the driver’s seat and strolled up the driveway in hiking pants and boots, a camouflage shirt, and an Australian bush hat. Yikes. Joe Camping.
We all went outside together. Mom was pushing me from behind. “Hi, Mr. Leech,” called Victor from the doorway.
“Hey, there,” he said to me. Undecided about what to call me. “Ready to get wet and dirty, hey? Paddle hard, run hard?”
“Um,” I said.
“Got a buddy flies a seaplane out of Rice Lake,” he said. “Thought I’d ask him to take us to a conservation area north of Peterborough.”
“Wow!” said Victor. “A seaplane. What kind?”
Christopher smiled at him. “Cessna single engine four seat.”
Victor turned to me. “You’ll have a great time!” he said.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
All right, I was acting dumb and graceless. But I truly did not want to go camping with Old Leech. And, from the look on his face, I wondered if he really wanted to go camping with me. I know how strong Mom’s suggestions can be.
“Gee, I sure wish I could go with you guys. I go to camp every summer. I love canoeing.” Victor looked like he meant it. Actually, he always does mean what he says. It’s what I like best about him.
“Sorry, Victor,” Mom began, but Christopher and I interrupted together.
“Why don’t you come with us, Vic!” The two of us stared at each other. Something we agreed on.
“Do you mean it?” Victor’s eyes bulged. They looked like plums.
“You bet,” I said.
“But, Christopher, honey, do you remember what we –”
“Hey, there, darlin’,” he told her. I hate him calling her pet names. “It’ll be okay.” He put his arm around her shoulders and smiled widely. Big white teeth like piano keys. “What do you think?” You, meaning me.
“Great,” I said.
“You see? He doesn’t mind.”
Mom didn’t know what to say. Her idea was for me and Christopher to go out in the woods by ourselves and become best friends. Neither of us wanted to tell her that we didn’t want to do this. And she didn’t want to insist. An odd situation. None of us saying what we were thinking. None of us meaning what we said.
“Gosh, that’s great!” Victor did mean it. “Let me ask my folks!”
“I’ll come with you,” I told him. “Bye, Mom. I’ll be back in a while.”
“Sure, Alan. Come along. My mom likes you,” he said.
And he meant that too.