Read an Excerpt
Stuck in the Back
"How much longer?" Jessie asked from the back seat, tapping the window glass three times. Jessie always tapped the window three times when they passed under a bridge.
"Another hour," said Mrs. Treski. She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. "At least."
They had already been driving for three hours, climbing steadily higher and higher into the mountains, and Jessie could feel herself sinking into a sulk. Everything about this trip to Grandma’s house was different.
First of all, Evan was sitting in the front seat.
Jessie could tell he was listening to his iPod. From behind, she could see his head bobbing slightly to the beat of the music as he stared out the window.
Evan had never been allowed to sit up front before. But this time, when he’d asked—for the ten thousandth time—Mrs. Treski had given him a long, thoughtful look and said yes. He was ten and tall for his age, so Mrs. Treski said he was old enough to move up front.
Jessie was nine—and stuck in the back.
"Hey," Jessie said, trying to get Evan to turn around and notice her. But he didn’t. He couldn’t hear her. It was like he wasn’t even in the car with her.
Jessie stared out the window at the farmland as it whizzed by them. Usually, she loved this drive. She loved to count things along the way—cows, hawks, Mini Coopers, out-of-state license plates. She kept tally marks in her notebook, and at the end of the trip, she would count them all up to see who had won. It was almost always the cows.
She also tracked their progress by looking for important landmarks along the way—like the pest control building that had a forty-foot fiberglass cockroach creeping over the roof, or the two-story carved wooden totem pole that was really a cell phone tower, or the billboard for a diner that had a big metal teapot with real steam coming out of it.
Evan used to be on the lookout for these landmarks, too, and it was a race to see who could spot each one first. But this year, he didn’t seem to care. Even when the giant water storage tank painted like a ladybug came into view and Jessie pointed it out to him, he just shrugged, as if he couldn’t be bothered. He was no fun, and suddenly the trip felt long.
They passed under another bridge, and Jessie tapped the window three times. "Why did Grandma set her house on fire?" she asked.
Mrs. Treski’s eyes shifted from the road to the rearview mirror, locking on Jessie’s reflection for a second before returning to the highway. "She didn’t mean to. It was an accident."
"I know," said Jessie. "But why did it happen this time?"
Mrs. Treski tipped her head to one side. "Acci-dents happen. Sometimes there’s no reason. She left something on the stove, and it caught on fire. It could happen to anyone."
But it hadn’t happened to her grandma before. Jessie thought about all the times Grandma had cooked noodles for her or made hot chocolate for her or heated up soup for her. Not once had she set the house on fire.
It was because of the fire that they were driving up to Grandma’s two days after Christmas instead of the day before, the way they always did. And it was because of the fire that they weren’t even sure if they would be staying at Grandma’s for New Year’s Eve the way they did every year. And that was the really big thing that was different this time.
For as long as Jessie could remember, New Year’s Eve meant staying at Grandma’s house and the long, slow climb to the top of Lovell’s Hill, where the trees parted and the sky opened and there stood the old iron bell hanging on its heavy wooden crossbeam.
Just before midnight they would gather, walking through the snow-covered woods, coming from all sides of the hill—neighbors and friends, family and sometimes even strangers—to sing the old songs and talk about the year gone by.
And then, just before midnight, the youngest one in the crowd and the oldest one, too, would step forward and both take hold of the rope that hung from the clapper of the dark and heavy bell, and at precisely the right moment, they would ring in the New Year, as loudly and joyously and for as long as they wanted.
Jessie remembered the year when she had been the youngest one on the hill, and what it felt like when Mrs. Lewis, who was eighty-four that year, had closed her soft, papery hand over hers. They had swung the rope back and forth, over and over, until the noise of the bell filled the snow-covered valley below and the echoes of each peal bounced off of Black Bear Mountain and came racing back to them, like an old faithful dog that always comes home.
But this year, everything was upside down. They might not even spend New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s house. It all depended Mrs. Treski said. On what? Jessie wondered. She tapped her right knee twice. Not spend New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s? Who would ring the bell?
Jessie jiggled her legs up and down. Her left foot was feeling prickly because she’d had it tucked up under her for the last half-hour. "How much longer to the Crossroads Store?" she asked.
"Oh, Jessie . . ." said her mother, looking in the rearview mirror again. "Do you need to stop?"
"What do you mean?" asked Jessie. It wasn’t a question of whether she needed to—although now that she thought of it, a trip to the bathroom sounded like a good idea. "We always stop at the Crossroads Store," she said, with a hint of a whine in her voice.
"It’s just that I thought this time we could drive straight through," said Mrs. Treski. "We’re making such good time, and you know how the weather is in the mountains. You never know what might blow in."
" Mo-o-om," said Jessie. Everything was messed up on this trip. "Evan, you want to stop at the Crossroads, don’t you?"
Evan just kept looking out the window, nodding his head in time to the music on his iPod.
"Evan!" Jessie didn’t mean to hit him quite so hard on the shoulder.
"Quit it!" he said, turning around to glare at her.
"I’m asking you a question!" she shouted. Evan took out one of the ear buds and let it dangle from his ear like a dead worm on a hook. "Do you want to stop at the Crossroads?" Jessie couldn’t help thinking the question sounded dumb. Of course he would want to stop.
But Evan just shrugged and put the ear bud back in his ear. "I don’t care."
Jessie threw herself against the seat and folded her arms over her chest.
"Relax, Jessie," said Mrs. Treski. "We’ll stop. I could use a break to stretch my legs, anyway. But we can’t stay too long. I don’t want to get to Grandma’s after dark." ***
The Crossroads Store was a ten-minute detour off the main highway. It was on the corner of two roads that were so dinky, Mrs. Treski called it the intersection of Nowhere and Oblivion. But the store itself was miraculous. It was a combination gas station, deli, bakery, gift shop, bookshop, hunting/fishing/clothing store, and post office. They sold kayaks, guns, taxidermied animals, hunting knives, Get Well cards, umbrellas, joke books, night crawlers, candy, and decorative wall calendars. Jessie could wander the store for hours, wishing she had the money to buy just about everything.
She only had five dollars in her pocket, though. That was all the money she’d allowed herself to bring on this trip. Back home in her lock box, she had almost thirty dollars. Most of that was from the money she’d made during the lemonade war, or at least what was left over after she made that $104 contribution to the Animal Rescue League. ("You don’t have to give as much as I did," Megan had said, but Jessie had insisted. "I said I was going to, and I’m going to," she said, even though it almost killed her to give all that money away—and to animals!)
But no matter how enticing everything in the Crossroads Store looked to her (a squirrel nutcracker! fake mustaches!), Jessie wasn’t about to spend thirty dollars. She liked to have money saved. Just in case.
After using the bathroom, she walked over to where Evan was standing, halfway between the deli and the bakery. He was looking at fancy gift bags of candy, all done up with curlicue ribbons.
"Look!" he said, holding up a bag. It was a bag of chocolate-covered blueberries, named Moose Droppings. "Want some?" he asked, dangling the bag in front of her face.
"That is so gross!" Jessie said. But she loved it. The candy really did look exactly like moose droppings, only smaller. On closer inspection, she saw that there were also chocolate-covered cranberries and chocolate-covered raisins. "Are you going to get a bag? We could split one. Which one do you think is the best?" But Evan had wandered off and wasn’t listening to her anymore.
Jessie put the bag back on the shelf and walked over to the corner of the store devoted to jigsaw puzzles. There were a dozen puzzles to choose from, but Jessie’s eyes went immediately to the one that was a picture of jellybeans. The brightly colored candies looked like rocks on a pebbly beach, and Jessie knew the puzzle would be hard to do. It had a thousand pieces!
"Jessie, are you ready?" asked her mother, shoving a few dollars back into her wallet after paying for the gas.
"Can we get this? Please?" asked Jessie, pulling the jellybean puzzle down from the shelf. "For Grandma?" Jessie and Grandma always worked on jigsaw puzzles when the family visited, and Jessie often brought a new puzzle for them to try. They had never done a thousand-piece puzzle, though.
Jessie’s mom paused, the money still hanging out from her wallet. Jessie knew her mom had to be careful with money, and she tried hard not to ask for things she didn’t need. "I have five dollars," said Jessie. "I could chip in."
Mrs. Treski took the puzzle and said, "It’s a good idea, Jess. You and Grandma can work on it when she gets home from the hospital."
Jessie smiled, glad she could have the puzzle without spending her own money, and turned to the circular spinning postcard rack that was next to the jigsaw puzzles. There were eight columns of cards, and Jessie liked to make the rack squeak as she turned it slowly. She started at the top and began to work her way straight down one column, and then went back up to the top of the next column. She didn’t want to miss a single card.
"Jess, can we go now?" asked her mother, looking through the various compartments of her wallet as if money would magically appear if she looked hard enough.
"No, I’m looking at the cards," said Jessie.
"You must own every card on that rack."
"Sometimes they have a new one," said Jessie.
"Five minutes, okay? Five minutes, I want to be pulling out of the parking lot." Mrs. Treski walked off to the checkout counter to pay for the puzzle.
Why was her mom so impatient? Usually she loved to stop at the Crossroads, but this time it was all about making good time and getting back on the road. Well, Jessie wasn’t going to be rushed. She finished looking at the second column of postcards, and then started on the third.
"Ever been there?"
Jessie looked up. An old man with a stubbly beard was squinting through his glasses at a postcard that showed the Olympic Stadium in Lake Placid. Jessie noticed that the glasses sat crooked on his face. "The stadium where they had the Olympics? Ever been there?"
Jessie shook her head. "No."
The man tapped the card. "I was there in 1980 and 1932. Yes, I was. I saw Sonja Henie win the gold medal for figure skating. Do you believe that?" He nodded his head up and down as if he could make her do the same.
Wow, 1932! How could anyone be that old? Jessie looked closely at the man standing beside her. He started to scratch his face like he had a bad rash. "Were you in the Olympics?" she asked.
"No!" said the man, "but I had dreams." He was nodding his head more vigorously now—nodding and scratching—and his eyes were locked on the far end of the store.
"Hey, Jess, come on," said Evan, grabbing hold of one elbow and pulling her toward the door.
"I’m not done!" she said. But Evan didn’t let go of her until they were outside. When Jessie looked back through the window, she saw that the man was still scratching his face and talking, even though no one was near.
"That guy was crazy," Evan said, matter-of-factly.
"How do you know?" asked Jessie, looking up at her big brother.
Evan shrugged and put his headphones back on. "You can just tell."
But Jessie couldn’t tell. It hadn’t occurred to her that there was anything wrong with the old man. Why did old people get like that? Did something break down inside their heads, the way a shoelace eventually snaps after being tied too many times? And how exactly did Evan know?
As soon as they got back on the highway, it started to snow. At first the flakes were large and wet, sticking for an instant to the windshield like giant white moths before dissolving into quarter size drops of water. Then the snow became steadier and more fierce, and the ground on either side of the highway turned white and shapeless. It was dusk when they pulled up to the end of Grandma’s long, winding driveway and got their first look at the house.
"Oh my," said Mrs. Treski, turning off the ignition and letting the car lights die.