Read an Excerpt
Nothing But Trouble
By Betty Ren Wright, Jacqueline Rogers
Holiday HouseCopyright © 1995 Betty Ren Wright
All rights reserved.
A Place to Stay
"This isn't going to work," said Vannie Kirkland's mom for the umpteenth time. "You can't just drop a child at an old lady's door and expect her to say fine-and-dandy. Kids are a lot of trouble."
Vannie's dad whistled "California, Here I Come" through his teeth. He'd been whistling it ever since they left Cleveland.
"If you aren't the world's worst worrier," he said after a while. "Wait and see. Aunt Bert's got to be lonely as all get out, living by herself in the country. She's going to love having Vannie stay with her for a while."
Every time this argument started up again, Vannie scrunched down a little farther in the backseat of the car. Maybe, she thought hopefully, she could make herself shrink away to nothing. Her dad would say, "Well, here's our Vannie, Aunt Bert — come to stay with you while we go off to California." And what do you know; when they looked in the backseat, nobody would be there.
Except Muffy! she reminded herself. Muffy wouldn't disappear. He might be the tiniest white poodle in the whole United States, but he was also the loudest and the fastest. You always knew where he was. At the moment he was perched on a carton full of bedding that took up most of the backseat, snarling and yipping at a semitrailer truck in the next lane.
"For goodness' sake!" Vannie's mom exploded. "Will you please keep that dog quiet! What's he planning to do, eat that semi?"
Vannie didn't answer. Nobody could keep Muffy quiet when he felt like barking. Being small didn't mean a thing to Muffy. That was just one of the reasons Vannie loved him.
She looked out the window and saw that they were in real farm country now. The colors were pretty — green fields, red barns, and silvery silos like towers in a fairy tale.
But where were the people? There was a house every once in a while, with a cluster of farm buildings around it, but she didn't see any people. Just cows — a million cows — and some pigs and, once, a field full of gray sheep with lighter-colored lambs wobbling after their mothers. No wonder Dad's aunt Bert was lonely, if all her neighbors had four legs!
"How much farther is it, for goodness' sake?" Vannie's mom wanted to know. "We've got a long way to go if you expect to make the Mississippi River by dark." She sounded tired and unhappy. "We should have called ahead. We should have warned your aunt."
Vannie pulled Muffy off the carton and hugged him, even though he squirmed and squealed.
"It's just over the next hill," her dad said, answering the question and ignoring the rest. "Hey there, Vannie, look sharp now. Here's where you're going to spend your summer vacation, lucky girl."
They stopped talking after that. Even Muffy was quiet for a change. The old sedan rattled and rumbled to the top of the hill and started down. Just below them, Vannie saw a little old house set back from the road. Tall trees clustered around it.
Beyond the trees and a shed stood a barn that was at least twice as big as the farmhouse. The roof of the barn had holes in it, but on the side nearest the road there was a huge painting of a gold-colored dog. The dog was leaping over a stream of bright blue water. A row of green hills, all the same size, was lined up behind him, and there were puffy pink clouds overhead.
"What in the world!" Vannie's mom exclaimed. Her dad just shrugged. Now that the moment was here, now that they were actually turning into Aunt Bert's front yard, he looked kind of scared.
"Come on, Vannie," he said, opening the back door of the car. "Get yourself out of there and bring your suitcase."
"No suitcase," her mother said quickly. "Not till we talk. Leave Muffy in the car, too."
She took Vannie's hand as they walked across the grass to the front porch. Behind them, Muffy yelped and battered the car windows, afraid he was being left out of a good time.
Good time! Vannie thought. Huh! The closer they got, the more the house looked as if it might fall down any minute.
The porch was a wonder. It stretched across the front of the little house, and it was crammed full of things: a long wooden swing hanging from the roof, a rocking chair, a footstool, a shabby old trunk, a box full of magazines, and a three-legged table that would have tipped over if not for the wooden crate propping it up.
"What in the world!" Vannie's mom said again. "Looks like she must live out here."
The door swung open. At first Vannie thought it was someone her own age on the other side of the screen, but when the person spoke, it was in a cracked, used-up kind of voice.
"What is it? Who ya lookin' for?"
Vannie's dad cleared his throat. "It's me, Aunt Bert," he said. "Your nephew Bill. Come to see you on our way to California. How are you? Here's my wife, Grace, and this is our little girl, Vannie."
The screen door flapped open, and a tiny, skinny old lady in blue jeans and a baggy shirt came out on the porch. Her skin was burned potato-brown, and her gray hair was chopped short like a man's. Behind her glasses, her eyes seemed to shoot sparks as she looked at each of the Kirklands in turn.
"Haven't seen any of the family in a month of Sundays," she said after a minute. "If you want to sit awhile, I'll get some lemonade." She motioned toward the swing and the rocker and marched back into the house. Vannie's folks looked at each other and then settled in the swing, making room for Vannie between them.
When Aunt Bert came back, she was carrying a tin tray with glasses on it. The glasses were beautiful, Vannie thought — all red and blue and yellow stripes. Aunt Bert gave them their drinks and then perched on the porch rail facing them.
"Now," she said, "this place is more than fifty miles off the main highway, so I don't believe you just happened by and decided to visit your old aunty. Must have had a reason. Want to tell me what it is?"
Vannie's dad grinned, sort of ashamed. "Well, you're right, Aunt Bert," he said. "And I'm sorry I haven't been here for a long time. The truth is, we've had a streak of bad luck back home, and we've decided it's time to make a fresh start out West. What we're wondering is, can Vannie stay here with you, while we get settled? We'll be sleeping in the car until I get a job and find us a place to live, see. We thought maybe you'd like some company for a while. ..."
"So that's how the wind blows." Aunt Bert fastened her sparkling eyes on Vannie as if she could see right through her.
"You don't have to say yes," Vannie's mom murmured. "We'll get by."
"I don't have to do anything I don't want to do," Aunt Bert retorted. She looked down at her sneakers and then back at Vannie.
"What do you say?" she asked. "You think you'd like stayin' here?"
Vannie could feel her father wanting her to say yes. She could feel her mother worrying. If she said, "I sure do want to stay," it would make them both happy. But there was something about Aunt Bert that demanded plain truth.
"Don't know," she said softly. "I never lived in the country. I might get lonesome."
Aunt Bert nodded, as if that was the right answer. She slid down off the porch rail.
"I'll take her," she said. "For a while, anyway. But you'd better send us a little money when you get some. I ain't rich."
"We will!" Vannie's father exclaimed. "We'll surely do that, Aunt Bert. And Vannie's a good girl. You'll see."
"She better be." The old lady didn't smile, but she cocked her head at Vannie. "What's all the ruckus out in your car?"
Vannie jumped up. "It's Muffy," she said, and suddenly she couldn't wait to get her arms around her dog. "I'll get him."
She was halfway across the straggly lawn when Aunt Bert's voice cut the air like a knife.
"Don't bother," she called. "I can see all I want to see from here. That ain't no dog, that's a powderpuff!"
Vannie stopped and looked back uncertainly.
"What we were thinking is that Muffy could stay here, too," Vannie's dad mumbled. "He's Vannie's good buddy, see, and besides, it's pretty hard traveling with a dog." His anxious smile faded under Aunt Bert's glare.
"I wouldn't have an animal like that if he was solid gold!" she snapped. "If he was solid gold, he wouldn't be yipping his fool head off, but I still wouldn't have him. Nasty little thing. He'd drive my cat crazy! Bet he bites, too."
Vannie felt as if she'd been smacked in the chest. "He does not bite!" she shouted. "He's the best dog in the whole world!" The tears she'd been storing up all the way from Cleveland were about to come pouring out. She gulped and sent Aunt Bert's glare right back at her.
"So you say," Aunt Bert sniffed. She turned to Vannie's folks, her hands on her hips. "I told you I'd take the girl, and I will," she said crossly. "But not that dog. I can't abide a silly little beast like that. You make up your mind." And without another word she marched into the house, letting the screen door slam shut behind her.
Vannie's dad took a deep breath. "Well now," he said.
"I knew this wouldn't work," Vannie's mother said. She rubbed her forehead as if it were hurting.
Vannie looked from one of them to the other. "I'm going back to the car," she announced. "That's a mean old lady, and I hate her. I wouldn't stay with her if — if she was solid gold!"CHAPTER 2
Vannie sat straight as a stick in the driver's seat. With her hands on the steering wheel and her foot on the brake pedal, she felt strong. Too bad her father had the car keys in his pocket! If she had the keys, she could back out onto the highway and head back home. She and Muffy would sleep under the porch of their old house on Glover Street; it was cozy and dark under there. And when Kelly Berman, who lived next door, found out they'd come back, she'd bring them peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches every day.
Muffy jumped up on the dashboard and barked happily. He thought Vannie could do anything, even drive.
Fifteen minutes had passed since Vannie's folks followed Aunt Bert into the house. What was going on in there? Vannie gripped the steering wheel tighter as the screen door opened. Her mom stepped out. She looked as if she'd like to head back to Cleveland, too.
"Come on in," she called. "And bring Muffy with you."
No! Vannie shouted, but it was the pretend-Vannie who said that, the one who knew how to drive. The real Vannie picked up Muffy and walked slowly to the shabby little house, where her mom was waiting. Together they went inside, and Vannie looked around at the crowded living room. The furniture was old-fashioned and dark. There were lacy covers on the backs of the chairs, and the end tables were covered with vases and photographs in cardboard frames. A heater stood in one corner, tall and gleaming, with a bucket of coal beside it.
"Put that beast down on the floor," Aunt Bert ordered. "Let's see what he'll do to my house — as if I can't guess!"
Vannie could guess, too. Muffy was an explorer. The minute his feet touched the floor, he took off like a model airplane, his long ears sticking out like wings. His first leap took him to the arm of the couch, and from there he jumped onto a table. A vase teetered and almost fell as he dived down to a footstool.
"That's enough!" Aunt Bert shrieked. "Stop him this minute!"
Vannie ran toward the footstool, but Muffy had already leaped onto a rocking chair. The chair tipped forward and dumped him on the rug, which surprised him so much that he forgot to keep running.
"You didn't have to yell," Vannie told Aunt Bert. "Muffy just likes to look around."
"That's right, Aunt Bert." Vannie's dad tried to sound as if he hadn't been worried for even a second. "Muffy's a lively little guy, but he's harmless. And cute as a button, right?"
Aunt Bert made a face. "Cute!" she snorted. "You bring him out in the kitchen now and we'll see. Get ready to grab him again in a hurry," she added grimly. "If he hurts my Elvis, I'll grind him up and have him for breakfast."
She would, too, Vannie thought. They followed Aunt Bert into a sunny kitchen that was about twice as big as the living room. Vannie put Muffy down on linoleum so worn you could hardly see the pattern. They all held their breath.
"Elvis," Aunt Bert snapped. "Wake yourself up and see what we've got out here."
There was a scratchy sound and a whiny meow. Then Elvis appeared from behind the stove. He was a small gray cat, skinny as could be. When he saw Muffy, his eyes lit up and gleamed like Aunt Bert's.
Muffy let out a yelp of pure delight. If there was one thing he liked better than exploring, it was chasing. Before Vannie could stop him, he raced across the kitchen.
"No!" Vannie's mom wailed. "Oh no, oh no! Catch him, Vannie!"
But Vannie was staring at Elvis. Suddenly the gray cat wasn't small anymore. His back was humped, his tail swelled up, and he hissed and spat like a baby dragon. Muffy skidded to a stop with a yelp.
"Well now!" Aunt Bert hooted. "Didn't know old Elvis had it in him. Guess he can take care of himself with that powderpuff!"
"He's not a powderpuff!" Vannie protested as she scooped up her dog.
But Aunt Bert kept laughing. "Whatever he is, he's not goin' to worry Elvis," she chuckled. "Still, that don't mean I'm goin' to like havin' him around. I've known real dogs in my day, and none of 'em looked anything like that!"
Vannie opened her mouth to reply, but no words came out — partly because she was too angry to talk and partly because what Aunt Bert had just said meant that Vannie and Muffy were going to stay.
I won't. You can't make me! the pretend-Vannie yelled. She stamped her foot and glared at Aunt Bert.
The real Vannie hugged her dog as tightly as she could and didn't look at anybody.CHAPTER 3
A Night Visitor
Vannie sat on the porch step and stared at the road. Her dad had tooted the horn, and her mother had waved until the car disappeared over the hilltop, but Vannie hadn't waved back. Now she was sorry. Angry but sorry. She knew her folks hadn't wanted to leave her behind. Her mother had been crying when they drove away. But they had left her, just the same.
"You want some more lemonade?" Aunt Bert stood just inside the screen door, her hands on her skinny hips. "No use moon-in' around out there."
Vannie shook her head.
"Well, you better come on in anyway. You can set the table while I heat up the stew. And bring the beast with you. He wouldn't last two seconds if a raccoon came by."
Vannie gasped and pulled Muffy into her lap. She'd been holding onto his collar, in case he decided to take off after the car, but she'd never thought he might be in danger.
"Would a raccoon really hurt him?" she asked, following Aunt Bert out to the kitchen.
"Tear him to pieces," Aunt Bert said cheerfully. "They have wicked claws. And they don't like to be pestered."
Never, never, never, Vannie promised herself, would she let Muffy go outside without his leash.
There wasn't much meat in Aunt Bert's stew, but the flavor was wonderful. Vannie hadn't realized how hungry she was. She had two helpings, plus a thick slice of bread with strawberry jam on it.
"Bet you don't have bread like that where you come from," Aunt Bert said smugly. "Bet you have that store-bought stuff — soft as marshmallows!"
Vannie shrugged. She liked soft, store-bought bread.
"Where'd you get that name of yours, anyway?" Aunt Bert asked a few minutes later. "Vanessa, I s'pose, after some big-shot movie star."
Vannie looked her straight in the eye. "Evangeline," she said proudly. "She's a girl in a poem my mom knows. Evangeline had to leave her home and all her friends and ..." She gulped, thinking that she and that other Evangeline had a lot in common. "She was a very brave person," she finished unhappily.
Aunt Bert sniffed. "I know all about her," she said. "Have another slice of bread and jam."
After supper Vannie helped with the dishes and then wandered around, looking at the house. It didn't take long to see everything. Besides the living room and kitchen, there was a dark hallway leading to the bathroom, Aunt Bert's bedroom, and a tiny spare bedroom stuffed with trunks and boxes.
"Everything in this house is a treasure," Aunt Bert said fiercely. "I keep it just the way my folks had it when they was alive. My mama made those doilies and the quilts and the pillows. Most of the vases and bowls they got when they was married."
Excerpted from Nothing But Trouble by Betty Ren Wright, Jacqueline Rogers. Copyright © 1995 Betty Ren Wright. 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.
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