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With a young brother in the hospital, a grandfather in jail, and their mother traveling with a rodeo, Maggie and Vern try to settle family problems.
On and Off the Barn
Junior stood on top of the barn, arms outstretched, legs apart. Strapped to his thin arms were wings made out of wire, old sheets, and staples—his own design. His mouth hung open. His eyes watched a spot over the cornfield where he hoped to land. He appeared to be praying.
"Go ahead and jump," his brother, Vern, called.
"Give him time," his sister, Maggie, said. She was sitting cross-legged on the ground, painting her fingernails with a green Magic Marker.
"Well, if he doesn't jump before Pap gets home, he won't get to jump. Junior, Pap won't let you jump. If he catches you up there on the barn, he'll whup you."
Junior kept watching the small grassy clearing beyond the cornfield. He was trying to watch it long enough to make it his body's destination. He felt his body had to know where it was supposed to go or it would end up twenty feet straight down in the hard dirt.
"Are you going to fly or not?" Vern asked.
Maggie held up one hand to admire her green fingernails and to blow on them, although they were dry. When she got the other hand done, she was going to make herself some rings out of clover. She loved to have beautiful hands because you could admire them so easily.
She showed her hand to Vern. "What do you think?"
"Are you going to fly or not?" Vern asked again.
Junior did not answer. His body was getting ready. He could actually feel strength seeping into his arms. The wings were actually becoming part of him, like a bird's.
This was the third time Junior had climbed up on the barn and allowed Vern to tie on his wings, the third time he had inched his way out to the edge of the roof. But this was the first time he had felt his body actually getting ready to participate, the first time strength had flowed into his arms.
His tongue flicked over his dry lips.
"He's not going," Vern said. His voice was heavy with scorn. "He just wants us to stand out here and beg him."
Maggie said, "Give him time."
"That's what we been doing. Every afternoon we been giving him ..."
He trailed off because he knew from past experience that it was impossible to predict what Junior would actually do. Junior was going to be a stuntman when he grew up, and sometimes he did things to prove he could, like go down Red Hill on a car made of an apple crate and two skates. "Good-bye, Red Hill," Junior had called, letting go with one hand to wave. Other times, like the day he had pretended he was going over White Run Falls with an inflated garbage bag under each arm—that had come to nothing.
Since there was no way of being sure, Vern waited. In his boredom he tried to blow a bubble with his gum, but his gum was five days old. Vern was going to chew it for a solid week. Since the second day it had been like chewing a rubber band. The only way he could have any fun with it now was to pull it out and twist it around his tongue. He did this without taking his eyes off Junior.
"Junior, you going or not?" he called.
Junior kept watching the grassy patch between the cornfield and the road.
Maggie finished her other hand, but it wasn't as nice as the first one. She had gone out of the nails in three places. "I couldn't stand to be left-handed, could you?" she asked Vern.
Vern put his gum back into his mouth. He was standing on one leg now, like a flamingo, with the other foot braced on his knee.
Junior took a deep breath, filling his lungs with warm country air—it couldn't hurt to have your lungs inflated with air when you jumped. The thought of his lungs as balloons was comforting to him. Maybe he wouldn't even need the wings. Maybe he would just float. What a surprise that would be. Vern and Maggie—
Vern saw the expression on Junior's face. "He's going." He spoke in the muted voice he used on the rare occasions when he got to the movies and didn't want to disturb the people around him. He'd sit there, gripping the armrests, telling himself what was going to happen: "He's going to crash.... He's going to get his head blowed off," until he did disturb somebody and they said, "Will you shut up!"
Maggie looked up from her nails. The top of the Magic Marker was in her mouth, so her mouth looked like a small green circle. She removed it. "Don't hurt yourself, Junior," she called.
Junior nodded without taking his eyes from the grassy clearing. He now thought of the clearing as his destination, the way a pilot thinks of an airport. He could see the very spot—that deep patch of clover—where he would touch down.
Vern knew that just before Junior flew, he would call "Good-bye, Barn." Everyone in the family had tried to break Junior of the habit of saying good-bye to houses and trees and barns, but no one had succeeded.
"It's stupid," Vern had told him. "They can't hear you."
"Maybe, maybe not," Junior had answered, closing his eyes in an expression that made him look, he thought, wise.
Junior exhaled and took another of his deep, inflating breaths. Then he paused. Something beyond the clearing had caught his attention.
A small cloud of dust was moving on the road. Junior watched it first with irritation. Pap was coming home early.
Every Monday afternoon Pap went into town with a truckload of beer and pop cans, which they collected from Highway 123 and gas station trash cans and picnic areas. Today Pap must have sold them fast and was already coming home.
Junior knew he would have to fly right this minute or wait till tomorrow. And he didn't want to do either. He felt he was almost ready—maybe another ten minutes and he would actually fly.
Frown lines came between his eyebrows as he squinted into the distance. He attempted to bring one hand up to shield his eyes so he could see better. He had forgotten this was not possible while you were wearing wings. It was also not possible to wipe the sweat off your chin or scratch where you itched.
He leaned forward slightly.
Seeing the forward motion, mistaking it for a step off the roof, Vern cried, "He's going!"
Junior stopped at the edge of the roof. He saw now that it was not Pap's truck. Pap's truck would be raising more dust. Pap's truck rattled louder than that. Pap's truck didn't have a shiny new bumper. Pap's truck didn't have a blue light on top.
He took one step backward. His wings dragged on the worn roof. He could see what it was now. He gasped with fear. "It's—it's—"
"What's wrong this time?" Vern said. "What's your big excuse this time? Coward! Yellow-belly! Either you jump or I'm going in the house, and I'm not kidding. And I'm not coming back either. I knew you weren't going to fly. You're nothing but a lousy yellow-bellied coward!"
Junior raised one white wing to point to the dusty road. His eyes looked over their heads. He had stopped breathing. He was like a statue pointing. The Winged Sentinel.
And then he said one of the most dreaded words in the family vocabulary:
"Police!" Junior screamed again.
"Police?" Maggie said.
She got to her feet like a startled deer. She heard in the distance the hum of an unfamiliar engine, an engine perfectly maintained, ready to give chase. "It is the police."
"Let's get out of here," Vern said. As he started to run he shouted, "Hide, Junior!"
Maggie flicked her braids over her shoulders and followed. She and Vern ran for their lives, around the barn, past the house, down the gully where Pap threw the household trash. Stumbling over rusty fenders, old bottles, rotten wood, papers, they headed for the woods.
They barely heard Junior's desperate cry. They ducked through the trees. They knew these woods because they had been running through them all their lives, running from each other mostly, but now it was as if all that had been practice for this moment.
Without a word they dodged through the trees. At the creek they skidded down the bank and jumped together. They kept running.
Not until they were three miles into the woods, past the ravine, did they stop. Then, by mutual unspoken consent—they both knew they were too far into the woods for the police to follow—they flung themselves down on the soft green moss.
Vern had landed on his back and was lying with his eyes shut, mouth open, hands crossed over his chest. He was breathing so hard and fast, his throat stung.
Maggie was wincing, holding her side because everytime she ran fast, it hurt. Her green-tipped fingers pressed hard into the flesh beneath her jeans.
Maggie played different solitary games in different parts of the thick, untouched forest. Here, in this pine-ringed clearing, was where she usually played Hiawatha, but Indian games were not on her mind today.
She was the first one to get her breath. "What do you think?"
Vern couldn't speak yet. He shook his head without opening his eyes.
"What do you think they wanted?" Maggie asked.
Again Vern shook his head.
"Maybe it wasn't the police," Maggie said. "Did you ever think of that?"
"It was the police," Vern managed to say.
"We didn't see them. I didn't. All I heard was Junior yelling 'Police!' Maybe he did that to keep from flying. Maybe it was just—oh, some person who'd turned into our road by mistake."
"Junior wouldn't lie about something like that. It sure sounded like a police car."
High in a tree a woodpecker worked on an old limb.
Maggie kept thinking. She was trying to come up with some optimistic reason for the arrival of the police. She couldn't. Finally she said, "Maybe Pap was in an accident."
Again Vern shook his head, this time because he didn't think that was what had happened.
Another head shake.
"Then what?" she asked impatiently.
Vern lifted his shoulders and let them fall. Slowly, with great effort, he sat up.
Suddenly he was aware that his chewing gum—his constant companion for five days—was missing. He didn't know if he had swallowed it or if it had popped out while he was running. He opened his eyes.
Maggie's side felt better, so she lay down beside him. She crossed her braids over her chest. Squinting up at the bright July sky, she asked again, "What do you think?"
Vern's mind had started working. This time he shook his head because he was thinking and didn't want to be disturbed.
When he had first heard the cry "Police!" from the top of the barn, he had had only one reaction, an instant reaction—run.
He had not questioned it or thought about it. It was the exact same reaction his grandfather would have had. Running from the police was the only intelligent thing for a Blossom to do. The police might have been put on earth to help some people, but never a Blossom.
"I think that they were looking for Pap to arrest him," Vern said finally.
"Why? What do you think he did? Could it be because his license plate's no good?"
"They don't arrest you for that. They give you tickets."
"Maybe they know that Pap's been making booze in the basement."
"What are we going to do, Vern?"
Vern scratched his head. When he was six years old, he blew off half of one finger. He had found a dynamite cap, an interesting black cylinder, and, not knowing what it was, had tried to break it open to see what was inside.
He took a sort of pride in his finger, and was glad when some kid asked him what had happened to it. His happiest moment in school had come on the first day of second grade.
The teacher had explained second grade and all the interesting things they would be doing, and then she had said, "Any questions, boys and girls?"
The boy next to Vern raised his hand.
"Yes?" the teacher asked.
"My question is, What happened to that boy's finger?"
"Dynamite," Vern answered.
"What are we going to do?" Maggie asked again. She knew that when Vern scratched his head with his dynamited finger, he was thinking hard.
"I'm not through thinking," he said.CHAPTER 3
From his desperate perch atop the barn Junior watched them go.
"Wait for me! You guys wait for me!" he cried. "Wait!"
His brother and sister disappeared into the trees, and Junior's heart sank like a stone.
His heart felt so low, he wanted to put his hand on his chest to make sure it had not actually dropped into his stomach, that it was still in his chest where it was supposed to be. He would have done this if it had not been for the wings.
The police car was out of sight now, driving through the stretch of pine trees by the creek. Junior heard the rattle of boards as the car drove slowly over the old board bridge.
Black crows called a warning and flew out of the trees toward the barn. They glided so close, Junior could hear the rush of their wings.
Suddenly, in a panic, Junior swirled and dived for the door to the loft. His wings stopped him at the sill. He fell back with a cry of frustration and fear.
He began tearing at his wings, trying to grab them through the cloth that covered his hands. It was as if the wings were actually part of his body. They wouldn't move.
The strings! He got one in his teeth and pulled so hard, he got the first loose tooth of his life, something he had been waiting for for years. He did not notice.
His brother, Vern, had tied all the knots and spit on them. "Now," Vern had said, "there's no way those are coming loose." Vern knew what he was talking about.
"Get off my arms!" Junior begged the wings. He was beginning to cry now. "Get off!"
He was more desperate than he had been the time the hornets got after him, only he had been able to outrun them. He was fast enough to outrun anything in the whole world, but he couldn't do a thing with these horrible wings on his arms. They were like traps.
And, he went on, tears filling his eyes, he would rather have hornets after him any day in the week than the police.
The police car was coming around the curve now, pulling into the clearing by the barn. Junior could see it, and he dropped to his knees. He crouched against the side of the barn, hiding behind his wings.
The car passed the barn and stopped in front of the house. Junior could hear the doors slam as the police got out of the car.
Tears were running down his cheeks. He was choking silently on his sobs. He was so full of tears, he thought he was going to drown. It was worse than the time he almost did drown down at the creek, trying to stay underwater longer than Vern.
"Anybody home?" one policeman called. He tried to ring the door bell, but it had not worked in ten years. He rattled the screen door.
"Don't let them see me," Junior pleaded. His head was buried beneath his wings. "Please don't let them see me. I'll be good for the rest of my life if you just don't let them see me. I'll give you a hundred million dollars if you don't let them see me."
"I'll check around back," one policeman said.
"I'll check the barn."
Barn! As soon as the word was spoken Junior's wings began to flutter.
"Nobody back here," the policeman called as he rounded the house. His voice was comfortingly far away.
Then, from inside the barn, right below Junior's trembling wings, the policeman called, "Nobody in here either."
Junior could hear the policeman walking around, kicking old straw as if he hoped to find somebody hiding underneath. Junior felt he knew the exact second the policeman looked up at the loft, deciding whether to climb the ladder.
Junior held his breath. Then the policeman walked out and stood exactly where Vern had stood, waiting for Junior's flight.
"Well, what do you think? Think we ought to wait?"
The other policeman joined him, standing in Maggie's place. Across the yard the patrol car's radio sputtered with sound, and Junior pleaded silently, Somebody's calling you! Go answer!
The policemen stayed where they were, by the barn, one in Maggie's place, one in Vern's.
And, Junior thought with another anxious flutter of his wings, the reason Maggie and Vern had picked that spot was because it was where they had the best view of him on the roof.
"We can come back later."
Still they stood there. Why didn't they go? Junior wanted to peer around his wings, but he was not going to do that until they were a million miles away. No, a billion miles away. If he just stayed absolutely still ...
"What's that up there on the roof?"
Junior's heart stopped beating.
Maybe they meant the house roof, Junior thought, his wings trembling so hard, it was as if they were real. His thoughts bounded frantically in his brain. Please let them mean the house roof. Please—
"On the barn?"
"Is it some kind of kite? What is that thing?"
"That's what I was asking you."
At that moment, the worst moment of his life, Junior felt himself begin to slide. He tried to catch himself. He gave one frantic lurch, but somehow this left him doubled over, his wings pinned beneath him.
Excerpted from The Not-Just-Anybody Family by Betsy Byars. Copyright © 1986 Betsy Byars. Excerpted by permission of Holiday House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted December 11, 2001
It was a great comedy/adventure book.It was one of Betsy C. Byars' greatest books. It is a great book for kids and for adults. If you enjoy laughing this is a book for you.
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