Read an Excerpt
A Normal Morning
It was a normal September Saturday in Willow Ridge. The sun was shining normally, and a very normal breeze was blowing through the tops of the trees that lined both sides of extremely normal Cherry Street. Izzy and Gabe, who lived at Number 22, were out on the front lawn. There was nothing odd about that, except that Izzy was a seven-year old girl, and Gabe was her ten-year old brother, and as a rule they never, ever played together—at least not outside, where Gabe's friends might see them. But in spite of appearances, today was not a normal day.
For starters, that morning Mom had been up before them, all dressed and waiting for them when they came downstairs. Her voice had sounded a little too cheerful, and her eyes were awfully bright, like they were full of tears that she wouldn't let fall. She had combed her hair and put on her lipstick, and she was smiling when she called Gabe and Izzy from their bedrooms. 'I've got a surprise for you both,' she'd said, cheerfully. Gabe and Izzy looked at each other. 'Chocolate-chip pancakes!' Mom announced, waving them into the kitchen, where, sure enough, the table was loaded with stacks of steaming, sweet-smelling chocolate-chip pancakes, chocolate syrup, and the kind of whipped cream that squirts out of a can. There was a glass of milk and a bowlful of berries for each of them. Something's up, thought Gabe.
He thought back to see if he could remember the last time his mom:
a. Was up before them
b. Was dressed as soon as she got up
c. Was smiling this early
d. Made chocolate-chip pancakes.
Never, he decided. This must have something to do with last night. He looked at his sister, but Izzy was so excited by the smell of chocolate in the air and the bowl of bright blueberries at her place, she wasn't looking at him. She was climbing into her chair, ready to dig in. 'Thanks, Mom,' said Gabe, giving his mom one of his trademark one-armed hugs as he walked over and grabbed his chair. As he dragged it out, bumping it a bit along the kitchen floor, and sat down to eat, his mom cleared her throat with a little cough and said, 'Hurry up, kids. I need you to finish up fast and run outside to play.'
Run outside to play? thought Gabe. What does she think this is—HER childhood? He looked through the kitchen doorway into the family room. He could see his X-Box, which he had intended to jump on as soon as he demolished his pancakes, berries, and cream. But there was something about the unusual way things were going this morning that made him think he'd better do what his mom said. Of course, he had to argue a little first. After all, he was a self-respecting ten-year-old boy.
'Ma—aa,' he moaned, shoveling down a forkful of pancake, glancing up at his pretty and tired-looking mother from under his fringe of spiky black hair.
'Are you for real?' He jerked his head toward his sister. 'Play? Outside? With HER?' He stared in Izzy's direction. She stuck out her tongue, which was thoroughly covered with a mixture of whipped cream, chocolate syrup, and half-chewed pancake. 'Gross,' he said.
Gabe whipped his head around to make sure his mother was noticing Izzy's typical, disgusting babyishness! But when he did, he was sorry he'd argued. The tears that had been making his mother's eyes look so bright a few moments ago had brimmed right over and rolled down her cheeks in two wet tracks. Something was wrong. Probably Dad again. Gabe's stomach began to knot up, and he pushed away his half-eaten breakfast. Sometimes he hated Dad.
He got out of his chair and cleared his place, dumping the remains of his breakfast into the trash and putting his chocolate-goop-covered plate in the sink. 'Hurry up, Izzy,' he called back as he left the kitchen. 'I'll get our jackets.' His mother wiped the tears that had collected on her chin and smiled a weak little smile at him. That sad little smile was almost worse than her tears. Why couldn't they have a normal dad? What had he done now to make Mom so upset? It could have been just about anything, but Gabe thought he knew just what it was. It was the same thing it always was. It was just . . . Dad, being Dad.
Gabe gave a last, lingering look at his X-Box as he made his way to the front door, picking up his and his sister's jackets from the hooks at the foot of the stairs. Passing through the living room, he kept his head down but couldn't resist taking a quick look from side-to-side at the mess; it was hard to tell if it was better or worse than usual.
After one of his dad's 'episodes,' as he'd heard Mom call them, the living room always looked bad. One morning, after an especially bad night, full of noise and screaming, the TV had been broken, with a big crack across the screen, like a spider web. His mom had really cried that time, but they did get a new TV out of it.
Gabe went to the front door and peeked through the curtains before he opened it. Good. No one there. He didn't want anyone to see the mess. He'd been to his friends' houses, a long time ago, and their living rooms never looked like his parents' living room. No matter how hard his mom tried, it was always a mess. He'd stopped going to his friends' houses, because if your friends invite you to their houses, they kind of expect you to invite them to yours, and Gabe knew he could never do that. No one ever told him he couldn't. He just knew.
He used to have lots of friends, like Luis and Ethan and Joe. He didn't have too many friends anymore, really, just Axel and Willis. But he didn't even want to see them this morning, not if he was going to have to babysit dopey Izzy in the front yard for who-knew-how-long.
But this morning Gabe didn't have to worry about his friends seeing him or getting a peek at his family's living room. As he walked down the front steps of Number 22 Cherry Street in normal Willow Ridge, USA, he saw Willis and his dad in their bright new truck, pulling out of their driveway across the street, and looking like they were headed toward the lake. He hoped they hadn't seen him, but it was too late; they had.
'Hey, Gabe,' called Mr. McTeague, waving. 'Go wake up your old man. We're going to the lake. See if he wants to come!' He leaned out the window and banged his arm on the side of his truck. From the passenger seat Willis yelled, 'You, too, Gabe!' Mr. McTeague nodded and said, 'Yeah, you, too.'
Gabe hung his head. 'My dad's sick today,' he lied. 'Thanks anyway.' Gabe's face felt hot, and he hoped it wasn't too red. He didn't want them to see. He knew they meant to be nice. But he was starting to hate all the nice, normal people in normal Willow Ridge, USA. Why couldn't his family be normal, too? Well, actually, it could. If it wasn't for Dad. He waved limply at Willis and Mr. McTeague as they drove off, and watched the fishing poles strapped to the top of their truck bobbing behind them, as if they were waving goodbye too, making fun of Gabe, and saying 'Bye-bye, loser! We're going fishing. What are you gonna do with your dad today?'
'IZ-ZEEEY,' yelled Gabe, suddenly, whirling around. 'What's taking you so long?' He glanced at their house and then turned toward his family's own driveway where their dad's car was parked, crookedly, as usual. He probably drove over my soccer ball when he parked like that, thought Gabe. He approached the dirty old car, which seemed dirtier and more beat up than ever somehow, and wondered if that was a new dent along the fender. As he got closer, he felt sure it hadn't been there yesterday, and the closer he got the more certain he was. That definitely wasn't there yesterday, he told himself, and it's a beaut! Behind him, the front door slammed. Princess Izzy was finally ready to appear. He turned to face her, but before he could say a word, she screamed.
'LOOK,' Izzy yelled. 'Blood!' She pointed to the ugly red scrape that stretched along the bottom of the crushed fender.
'Shut UP!' hissed Gabe, looking around to see if the neighbors could hear. 'That's just rust, you big baby! Anyone knows that's just rust! And get your thumb out of your mouth!' Izzy's thumb had flown to her mouth, as it did whenever she was scared, and now, as she pulled it out and looked up at her brother, her eyes were full of fear. 'Rust?' she repeated, uncertainly. 'Are you sure?' She moved around to take Gabe's hand, and her little hand was cold in his. 'Of course,' he said, absently. 'Anyone can see that.'
But he didn't see that. Gabe was afraid that Izzy, for once in her dumb little seven-year-old life, might be right.