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The Sasquatch Escape
By Suzanne Selfors, Dan Santat
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Copyright © 2013 Suzanne Selfors Dan Santat
All rights reserved.
The weird shadow swept across the sky.
Ben blinked once, twice, three times, just in case an eyelash had drifted onto his eyeball. But it wasn't an eyelash. Something was moving between the clouds—something with an enormous wingspan and a long tail. Ben pressed his nose to the passenger window. "Grandpa? Did you see that?"
"So, you've got a voice after all," his grandfather said. "I was beginning to think you'd swallowed your tongue."
Benjamin Silverstein, age ten, had not swallowed his tongue. But it was true that he hadn't spoken since being picked up at the airport. He'd shrugged when his grandfather had asked, "How was your flight?" He'd nodded when his grandfather had asked, "Are you hungry?" He'd looked away when his grandfather had said, "I bet you miss your parents." But not a single word had come out of Ben. After a while, his grandfather had stopped talking, and they'd driven down the lonely two-lane highway in silence. There'd been nothing interesting to look at, no houses or gas stations or billboards. Just trees. Lots and lots of trees.
But then the shape had appeared, circling and swooping like a wind-kissed kite. "I've never seen a bird that big. It's got a tail like a rope."
Grandpa Abe slowed the car, then pulled to the side of the highway onto the gravel shoulder. "All right, already. Where is this bird?" he asked after the car came to a stop.
"It darted behind that cloud," Ben said. They waited a few minutes, but the bird didn't reappear. The fluffy cloud drifted, revealing nothing but twilight sky.
"How big was it?"
Ben shrugged. "Big. Maybe as big as a helicopter."
"As big as a helicopter? And a tail like a rope?"
"Hmmm. That doesn't sound right." Grandpa Abe scratched one of his overgrown gray eyebrows. "I've never seen a bird like that."
"Well, I saw it."
They waited another minute, but nothing flew out of the cloud. "Is the helicopter bird one of your stories?" Grandpa Abe's eyes narrowed with suspicion.
"What do you mean?"
"Your mother said you've been making up stories."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Ben grumbled. But he did know. That very morning, he'd made up a story that the pilot had called the house to cancel Ben's flight because he'd lost the keys to the plane. Then Ben had made up a story about losing his suitcase so he wouldn't have to go on this trip. Neither of those stories had worked. His parents had gone ahead with their plans and had sent Ben away.
Sometimes, Ben's stories worked to his advantage, like the time he'd claimed that a California condor had snatched his math homework, when actually he'd forgotten to finish it. After his teacher pointed out that California condors don't usually do such things, Ben changed the bird to a pelican. Because pelicans are known troublemakers, the math teacher gave Ben an extra week to make up the assignment.
The way Ben saw it, stories were always more exciting than the truth.
Grandpa Abe sighed. "I should live so long to see a bird the size of a helicopter." He set his crinkled hands on the steering wheel and merged back onto the highway.
Ben sank into his seat and hugged his hamster cage to his chest. The hamster, a Chinese striped variety named Snooze, lay curled beneath a pile of chewed-up newspaper. The pile expanded and contracted with the hamster's deep, slumbering breaths. Ben wished at that very moment that he could be a hamster. Life would certainly be easier if the entire world were a simple plastic rectangle. It didn't matter if the rectangle was set on a windowsill in Los Angeles or in the backseat of an old Cadillac driving down a highway in the middle of nowhere. The world inside the rectangle always stayed the same—stuff to chew, stuff to eat and drink, a wheel to waddle around in. No worries, no troubles, no changes.
"My grandson, the storyteller," Grandpa Abe mumbled.
"The bird wasn't a story," Ben said. "It was real."
WELCOME TO BUTTONVILLE
Here we are," Grandpa Abe announced as he exited the highway. The sign at the side of the road read:
Grandpa Abe drove down Main Street. The evening sky had darkened, but the corner streetlights shone brightly, casting their glow on the little town.
Ben frowned. It didn't look like the nicest town on Earth. It looked like the saddest town on Earth. There were no bright awnings, no corner fruit stands, no sidewalk tables where people sipped fancy drinks. Instead, many of the little shops that lined Main Street were empty, with signs in the windows:
"This town hasn't been the same since the button factory shut down," Grandpa Abe explained. "Most of the young families moved away to find work."
Ben had heard about the button factory. His mother kept a big bowl of buttons in the entertainment room back home in Los Angeles. "Those buttons were made by your grandfather," she'd told him. "He worked in a button factory most of his life."
"How come the factory shut down?" Ben asked, peering over the seat.
"Customers stopped wanting handmade buttons like these," Grandpa Abe replied, pointing to the big wooden buttons on the front of his shirt. "People should be so lucky to get handmade buttons. But it's cheaper to buy the plastic ones made by a machine."
Ben's gaze traveled up the wooden buttons and rested on his grandfather's wrinkled face. He hadn't seen his grandfather in six years. Ben's dad said it was because Grandpa Abe didn't like to travel. Because Ben had been only four years old at the time, he didn't remember anything about the last visit. In the photos at home, Grandpa Abe had dark hair just like Ben and Ben's dad. But today, not a single hair remained on his shiny scalp.
Ben must have been staring pretty hard because his grandfather turned and winked at him. "You look different, too," Grandpa Abe said. "Your hair is shorter."
Ben ran his hand over his hair, which was cut to precisely three-quarters of an inch every two weeks. He thought about making up a story that his hair had been cut short because he'd been infested with Caribbean head lice, or because the ends had caught fire when he'd been struck by lightning. The real reason Ben had short hair was because his mother insisted it was stylish. She always took him to her hairdresser in Beverly Hills rather than to a barbershop, where the other boys went.
The Cadillac pulled up to a stop sign, just opposite a shop called the Dollar Store. A girl leaned out of the store's upstairs window. It wasn't her fuzzy pink bathrobe that caught Ben's attention, or the way her long blond hair glowed in the lamplight. What caught his attention was the way she was staring at the sky with her mouth wide open, as if seeing something very strange.
Ben unfastened his seat belt, rolled down the opposite window, and stuck his head out. Cool night air tickled his nose and ears. A shadow darted between two clouds—a shadow with enormous wings and a long, ropelike tail. If Ben had blinked, he would have missed it.
The girl looked down at Ben. Their eyes met. She'd seen it, too.
Then she mouthed a single word before disappearing behind the curtains.
"You want me to catch a cold?" Grandpa Abe complained.
As Ben closed the window and buckled his seat belt, Grandpa Abe drove through the intersection and turned onto a side street. Ben wrapped his arms around the hamster cage again. He wasn't an expert at reading lips, but he was pretty certain he knew what word the girl had said.
THE HOUSE ON PINE STREET
All the houses on Pine Street looked the same because they were company houses, built long ago by the owner of the button factory. Each was narrow with a white picket fence and three steps that led up to the front porch. Each was painted green with white trim and had a brick chimney. The only way to tell Grandpa Abe's house from the other houses was its cherry-red porch swing.
Grandpa Abe's cane tapped as he led Ben up the steps. The inside of his house smelled like coffee and onions, which wasn't so bad. Dust sparkled at the edges of a crowded bookshelf and a cluttered table. The furniture was patched and faded. Stuffing leaked from the sofa pillows. The entire house was the size of Ben's father's garage.
"Not much to look at, but it's home," Grandpa Abe said. "I know you're used to much better."
Ben set the hamster cage on the kitchen counter, right next to a bowl of peanuts, and looked around. There was no big-screen TV, no chandelier, no fancy Persian carpets. And clearly no housekeeper. Ben opened his hamster cage and dumped in two peanuts. They landed with soft plops in the newspaper litter. As Snooze popped his head out of his nest and grabbed a treat, Ben wondered if his grandfather was poor.
Grandpa Abe rubbed the back of his bald head. "Better go get your suitcase and I'll show you where you'll be sleeping."
Ben went back outside. A single star had appeared in the now cloudless sky. It never got very dark in Los Angeles because the city never went to sleep. But here in Buttonville, even with the lights glowing, night pressed in with eerie, charcoal-colored shadows. So dark. So quiet. Ben grabbed his suitcase and hurried back into the house.
"This is your bedroom," Grandpa Abe said as he opened the door behind the kitchen. He reached up and pulled a cord that hung from the ceiling. The light switched on, revealing a room not much bigger than a closet, with peeling yellow wallpaper and the faint odor of mothballs. "If I were you, I'd keep that mouse in here, out of Barnaby's reach."
"Snooze isn't a mouse; he's a hamster," Ben said as he dumped his suitcase onto the bed. Dust particles jumped off the quilt and took flight through the air like cosmic gymnasts. "Who's Barnaby?"
"Who's Barnaby? Barnaby's my cat."
"You have a cat?" Ben's heart thumped. He snatched the cage from the kitchen counter and hurried back into the bedroom. "A cat?"
"He's an excellent mouser, that cat," Grandpa Abe said proudly.
"What? You're surprised by that? Cats catch mice, that's what they do," Grandpa Abe said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "But Barnaby's never killed a hamster. As long as you keep the door closed, your hamster will be fine." Grandpa Abe pointed his cane around the room. "That's your closet and dresser drawers."
Ben set the cage on top of the dresser. His parents hadn't said anything about a cat that liked to hunt. But then again, his parents hadn't said anything about this trip except, "We need time alone to work out some troubles, so we're sending you to stay with your grandfather."
Grandpa Abe hobbled over and sat at the end of the bed. "So? What are your plans?"
"For the summer. What do you want to do?"
Ben shrugged. "What is there to do?"
"There aren't any jobs, if that's what you were hoping for. Ever since the button factory closed, finding work is nearly impossible around here." Dust particles swirled beneath the overhead bulb. "You could come with me to the senior center. We've got bingo on Monday, board games on Tuesday, dance lessons on Wednesday, guest lectures on Thursday, and Friday is birthday day, when we celebrate all the birthdays for that week. Saturday is pudding day."
"We eat pudding. It's fun."
Ben didn't want to hurt his grandfather's feelings, so he simply said, "Yeah, sounds like fun."
Grandpa Abe reached over and patted Ben's knee. "Cheer up, boychik. It won't be that bad. You'll find something to do. Boys always find something to do. You'll keep yourself busy while your parents work out their troubles, and then you'll be back home for school before you know it." With a grunt and some creaking of the knees, he got to his feet. "In the meantime, I have a leftover brisket that I'll warm in the microwave."
As soon as his grandfather had left the room, Ben released a groan that he'd been holding since he got off the plane. This was going to be the worst summer ever. Summer was supposed to be spent swimming in his pool with friends or rowing at the lake. Not stuck at the senior center playing board games and eating pudding.
"Nothing fancy around here," Grandpa Abe explained fifteen minutes later as they sat at the kitchen table. He handed Ben a chipped plate and a fork with a bent handle. "Been living the bachelor life for twenty years. Don't care much for fancy. I need fancy like I need a hole in the head."
Dinner was pretty good. The potatoes were creamy and the brisket wasn't too dry. The pickles were served right out of the jar, and the soda was sipped straight from the can. "No need for glasses," Grandpa Abe explained. "Glasses need to be washed, and I don't like doing dishes." He nodded toward the stack of dirty dishes that towered in the sink.
Grandpa Abe didn't seem to care about manners. He chewed loudly, scraping the last bits of food right off his plate and into his mouth. After a loud burp, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Ben looked around. Napkins didn't appear to be a part of Grandpa Abe's world, so Ben wiped his mouth on his sleeve, too.
"Let's go sit on the porch and count the stars," Grandpa Abe said as he reached for his cane. "And maybe we'll catch a glimpse of that bird, the one as big as a helicopter." He winked at Ben, clearly still believing that the bird had come from Ben's imagination.
As Ben carried his plate to the sink, he pictured the blond girl. Dragon, she'd mouthed. Ben frowned. He didn't think for an instant that the rope-tailed bird was actually a dragon. Dragons weren't real. Dragons were stories. And he knew all about stories.
But the bird was something, and if not a dragon, then what?
DOLLAR STORE GIRL
Grab some breakfast," Grandpa Abe said the next morning as he pointed to a box of doughnuts. "We've got errands to run."
Doughnuts for breakfast? Back home, Ben always had oatmeal with bananas or whole-grain cereal. "Thanks." He took a powdered-sugar bite.
"You'd better keep your bedroom door shut. Barnaby's on the prowl."
Ben hadn't yet seen Barnaby the cat, but he'd imagined him to be a gigantic killer with fangs and glowing red eyes. He checked on Snooze, who was asleep as usual. Then he shut the bedroom door and followed his grandfather out to the car.
Although Ben still didn't want to spend an entire summer in Buttonville, he decided, as he munched on the doughnut, that things weren't all that bad. His grandfather hadn't made him take a shower that morning and hadn't asked a bunch of questions like, "Did you brush and floss? Did you put on clean socks? Did you take your vitamins?" Since Grandpa Abe was wearing the same clothes he'd worn when he'd picked Ben up at the airport, Ben decided to wear yesterday's clothes, too. He never got to do that at home.
But to Ben's disappointment, Buttonville's Main Street looked just as threadbare in the daylight as it had the night before—maybe worse because now all the flaking paint, broken windows, and cracked sidewalks could be seen. A pair of old men sat on a bench outside the Buttonville Hardware Store. They waved as Grandpa Abe drove past. Grandpa Abe waved back. A woman washing the windows of the Buttonville Diner also waved. Grandpa Abe waved back. The girl with the long blond hair who'd been leaning out the window last night was now standing outside the Dollar Store, a broom in her hand. She didn't wave, but she watched intently as Grandpa Abe parked the car.
"So? What will you want for dinner?" Grandpa Abe asked, pulling a canvas hat out of the glove compartment and setting it on his bald head. "How about a nice brisket? You like a nice brisket? They make a nice ready-to-eat brisket at the market."
Ben didn't point out that they'd had brisket the night before. He was watching the girl across the street, and she appeared to be watching him.
"Did you swallow your tongue again?" Grandpa Abe asked.
"Sorry," Ben said. "Sure, I like brisket."
"Then brisket it is." Clutching his cane, Grandpa Abe struggled out of the car. Ben hurried around to the driver's side to help him. "Looks like Pearl Petal is coming this way," Grandpa Abe said with a slight nod of his head. The blond girl was crossing the street, still clutching the broom. "She's a nice girl, that Pearl, but a bit of a troublemaker. Watch yourself." The tip of his wooden cane tapped against the sidewalk as Grandpa Abe headed into the Food 4 Less Market.
Excerpted from The Sasquatch Escape by Suzanne Selfors, Dan Santat. Copyright © 2013 Suzanne Selfors Dan Santat. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
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