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"It's easy to root for the twins, especially smart, science-savvy Ruby, who stands by her brother while struggling with her jealousy about his special status."—Publishers Weekly
"Smith expertly conjures the dusty feel of a Midwest where hope itself is baking away...this is miles away from most magical fare, and is therefore a real breath of fresh air."—Booklist
"A good fit for the target audience...[with] broad appeal."—VOYA
ONLY RUBY KNEW about the stranger in the barn.
It was the dogs who had first given him away. She’d been watching from her bedroom window as they danced at the double-doored entrance, bounding in and then out again amid a small cloud of dust. They were a cowardly duo, a pair of oversized brown mutts that seemed perpetually startled by the mob of barn cats in their midst. But Ruby had begun to get up anyway, in case it turned out to be something worse—a garter snake or a rat. And when she saw them suddenly dart away, streaking back up the drive and toward the house, she pressed her face closer to the window just in time to see a man walk out of the barn.
He yawned and stretched, tilting his face toward the paling sky, then moved casually out into the open as if he were waking up in his own bedroom rather than the McDuffs’ crumbling barn. He was tall, perhaps the tallest person Ruby had ever seen, with long legs that seemed to account for an unusually large percentage of his body, giving him an overall storklike impression, which wasn’t helped by the length of his nose. There was something in his manner that she found unsettling, an air of confidence, like he was somehow entitled to be there.
Ruby knew she should probably yell for Mom and Dad, or at least wake Simon, who was still asleep in his room next door. But even so, she remained frozen on the edge of her bed, unable to move from the window.
As she watched, the man pulled a hat from his back pocket—a raggedy gray thing that barely held its shape—and placed it carefully on his head. He wore dark pants and a blue shirt with buttons that glinted in the sun, which seemed to Ruby an outfit better suited for an office than for stowing away in someone’s hayloft. He thumped a hand against his chest as if to give himself a kick start, then yawned once more before turning to walk purposefully up the drive.
Ruby waited for another minute, her eyes still wide, her nose still touching the glass, and then vaulted out of bed and ran down the stairs in her pajamas.
She saw Mom half turn from the griddle as she passed the kitchen, and she forced herself to slow to a somewhat normal speed. Dad looked up from the table, where he seemed to be examining the tines of a fork, turning it in circles and humming to himself.
“Breakfast in ten, okay?” Mom yelled as Ruby hurried past, but she was already out the front door. She paused for a moment and swept her eyes around in search of the stranger, but it was as if he’d simply disappeared in the acres of wheat that bordered the farmhouse. As she headed toward the barn, the scorched earth was hot against her bare feet. The sky overhead was still pink at the edges where it touched the fields that stretched in every direction, flat and endless and unchanging.
The dogs had returned and were now milling about at the entrance to the barn. Their tails fanned the air as Ruby approached at a jog. “You guys are fantastic security guards,” she said, giving each a pat as she stepped around them. “Really.”
Inside, the barn was stiflingly hot—like everything else these days—and there was a crackling dryness to it, as if the hay might go up in flames at any moment. But other than the recent rise in temperatures, very little else had changed in the year since the McDuffs first bought the place.
Their ten acres of land could be called a farm only in the very loosest sense of the word. From the outside, someone might be fooled into thinking they knew what they were doing; they’d planted just enough crops to get by, a half-dozen acres of corn and wheat, all of which was wilting badly in the drought.
But the inside of the barn told a different story; there were no cows or pigs or sheep, just a few bales of hay in the very back, where the cats liked to curl up in the afternoons. The building’s main function was to act as Dad’s workshop. This was where he now spent his days, bent over a thick wooden table, struggling to give shape to the yet uninvented invention that had brought them all out here in the first place.
In their old life, in a small suburb of Chicago, Dad had been a high school science teacher, and Mom a florist. But a year ago, just after Simon and Ruby turned eleven, their parents had traded in their perfectly good jobs and their perfectly acceptable lives to pursue their own separate dreams of becoming an inventor and an artist.
So far, Mom had finished painting only a single picture of the barn, which looked about as dire as the thing itself, and Dad had amassed a stable full of wires and bolts and rattling sheets of metal, though not much else.
“Imagining the thing is half the battle,” he always said when Ruby watched him work, his face screwed up in concentration as he examined this tool or that, pausing every now and then to turn the page of one of the many books that lined the uneven floor.
He knew exactly what he wanted to build. He’d come up with the idea to put a device beneath the floor of every major train station and airport and sports stadium in the country, places with steady flows of traffic, people walking back and forth all day long, running for their trains or pacing during delays or jumping up and down for their teams. And the force of all those footsteps would be harnessed by his invention, which would turn them into enough energy to power the buildings themselves.
Everyone agreed that it was a brilliant idea.
The only problem was, he hadn’t quite figured out how to make the thing work yet.
Now, Ruby made her way past the bookshelves and the lights and the radio Dad listened to while working, all the way to the back of the barn, where a small pile of hay bales were stacked along the wall. As she approached, thinking that it looked altogether too neat and that perhaps she had only dreamed the man in the blue shirt, she noticed one of the kittens crouched between the bales, batting at something with her paw. When Ruby drew near, she sprang up and loped off with her tail held high, disappearing into one of the stalls and leaving behind a silver button with the faintest of etchings on its metallic surface: a tiny, perfect O.
By the time Ruby skidded into her seat at the breakfast table, Simon was already there, eyeing his plateful of pancakes.
“About time,” he said, stabbing one with his fork. The McDuffs had a rule about waiting until everyone was at the table before eating, and Simon’s appetite—Mom called it healthy, though Ruby would have gone with disgusting—usually meant he was the first to arrive. Dad slid a pancake onto Ruby’s plate while Mom poured her a glass of orange juice.
“Sorry,” she said. “The dogs were acting funny.”
“Shocking,” Simon said, raising his eyebrows. He was still in pajamas, too, and his blond hair looked more like feathers than anything else this morning, sticking out in all directions. His eyes—the same shade of blue as Ruby’s—were still heavy with sleep. “What was it this time? The kittens? A mouse?”
She slipped a hand into the thin pocket of her pajama pants, where she’d tucked the silver button. Dad was reading the newspaper and Mom was buttering a piece of toast, and Ruby took the opportunity to give Simon a long look, a look intended to be meaningful, but that obviously fell somewhat short.
“What?” he asked, wiping his sleeve across his face. “Syrup? Did I get it?”
Ruby sighed and shook her head. “No, you’re fine.”
It wasn’t long ago that they’d been able to read each other’s thoughts without even trying. Or at least it had seemed that way. They’d grown up side by side, slept in the same room for most of their lives, whispered secrets in the dark, invented languages, and murmured stories. They’d come into the world together at nearly the same moment, and because of this it had always seemed they were meant to stay that way.
But if there was anything Ruby had learned in the last year, it was that things change. In summers past, she and Simon had explored their old neighborhood together. They’d raced their bikes and built a tree house; they’d invented a new flavor of Popsicle, and held a contest to see who could keep their goldfish alive the longest. They’d done all this amid sidewalks and driveways and rows of hedges. On concrete playgrounds and back porches and soccer fields.
But now the backdrop to their lives was so much starker, so much wider, and sometimes Ruby couldn’t help feeling like the landscape itself was to blame for all that had changed between her and her twin brother. How could you be the king and queen of a place with no boundaries, where the sky fell like a blade against the horizon in every direction?
Maybe they’d never really been inseparable so much as they hadn’t ever had room to separate.
Ever since they’d turned twelve last month, Simon had grown moody, often stalking off into the fields or locking himself in his room for no reason at all. On rainy days, he’d taken to lying on his bed for hours at a time, mindlessly tossing a baseball up at the ceiling. Even the dogs had begun to avoid him, shying away in a mystifying display of wariness.
Now they were keeping a wide berth around Simon’s seat as they circled the table, their noses twitching at the smell of the food. When he accidentally dropped a piece of pancake near his foot, both dogs hesitated, then one of them—the braver one—darted over to grab it before scurrying away again as if being chased.
“So what’s on the agenda today?” Mom asked as she reached for the syrup.
Simon groaned. “Trying not to melt.”
“It’s like an oven out there,” Ruby agreed.
“Oh, come on,” Dad said in the same falsely cheerful voice he’d begun to use for nearly everything these days. “It’s not that bad.”
“Actually, it sort of is,” Mom said with a grin. “Sorry, hon. But I spent half of yesterday with my head in the freezer.”
Dad shook his head mournfully. “How did I manage to get stuck with a family of such big wimps?”
“Luck, I guess,” Mom said, nudging the empty bread basket in the direction of the twins. “Would one of you pop in a few more pieces of toast?”
Ruby was the first to put her finger on her nose, so Simon rose with a sigh and grabbed the basket. Rules were rules.
“I know, I know. Life is so tough,” Mom teased him as he moved sullenly around the kitchen. “And not to add to your troubles, but you’re on laundry duty later.”
“Can’t Ruby do it?” he asked. “I’m helping Dad this morning, and then I wanted to get in some pitching practice this afternoon.”
“You’ve got all day,” Mom said, unmoved. “And it’s your turn, not Ruby’s.”
Simon rolled his eyes, though Ruby couldn’t tell if it was meant for her or for Mom or for them both. Right now, he seemed to be upset with the toast more than anything, jamming in the first slice of bread so hard that it crumpled like an accordion.
“If Dad needs you this morning, we’ll get to it later this afternoon,” Mom continued, spearing a piece of pancake with her fork. “But it’s got to get done, okay?”
“Okay,” Simon said, his voice heavy with frustration as he angled the second slice into the toaster, his hand brushing up against its metal paneling. As he did, there was a sudden spark, followed by a quick popping sound, and then the lights in the kitchen went abruptly dark.
Simon dropped the bread and took a swift step backward, his mouth open. The hum of the air conditioner had gone silent, and the numbers on the microwave had disappeared. Everyone stared at Simon, who stood absolutely still.
A few beats of silence passed, and then a few more. Finally, Dad cleared his throat. “Must’ve been a short circuit,” he said, looking vaguely pleased at the idea that something electronic might need fixing. “I’ll go down and check it out.”
But Mom was still looking at Simon. “You okay?” she asked, and he held up both hands like a criminal caught in the act.
“It wasn’t my fault,” he said quickly, and Mom let out a little laugh.
“Of course it wasn’t,” she said. But from where Ruby sat at the table—the dogs cowering beneath her feet, the kitchen dark and silent—she wasn’t nearly as sure.
RUBY STILL HADN’T HAD A CHANCE to tell Simon about the button in her pocket. As soon as Dad had finished fixing the circuit breakers—letting out a triumphant whoop from the basement when the lights flickered on again—the two of them headed out to the barn together, leaving Ruby on dish duty with Mom.
They stood side by side at the sink, looking out the window as the dogs ran circles around the scarecrow. The sun had risen higher now, making the fields look washed out and pale, and the heat quivered above them like something you could reach out and touch.
Behind them, on the little TV set that was perched atop the microwave, the morning news showed images of the tornadoes that had been ripping across the Plains States with uncommon frequency—a montage of torn shingles and uprooted road signs—before switching to a story about unusually high rainfall and heavy flooding in New England. Ruby swiveled to watch, and Mom set down a soapy dish with a sigh.
“Wish we’d get some of that rain up here,” she said, looking out grimly over the cracked fields beyond the window.
On the TV, the lens of the camera was being pelted by raindrops that looked as big as quarters, and two people in slickers stood waist-deep in water. Ruby shook her head. “Not rain like that.”
“No,” Mom agreed. “But we need some. Otherwise…”
“Otherwise, what?” Ruby asked, feeling a faint tug of hope at the thought of their old life in the suburbs. This move was supposed to make life better, but the crops had been meant to keep them afloat until Dad had some luck with his invention or Mom got a letter back from one of the art galleries she was always writing to in Chicago.
Nobody could have foreseen such an epic drought, though, the worst in a hundred years, at least according to the old farmers at the general store in town, their leathery faces set with worried wrinkles. Their first summer on the farm had been fairly normal, and the winter no worse than the ones in Chicago, but it was only the beginning of June, and already this had been the longest summer of Ruby’s life. It was the summer of heat and the summer of humidity, the summer of sweat and the summer of fans.
But mostly, it was the summer of dust.
Dust had become a fact of life. It was everywhere: in their teeth and in the creases between their toes, in their hair and in their eyes. Even after taking a shower, Ruby seemed to always find it in her bed at night, and it came through the window on the blades of the fans, determined to coat every inch of the house. To make things worse, there’d been a spate of freak wind gusts lately, rushing breezes that kicked loose the dry dirt in the fields and sent it sailing in great hazy clouds across the farm, stinging anyone who dared to venture outside.
Ruby couldn’t help it. She hated the acres of land here, with hardly a tree in sight, and the vast and complete darkness that settled over the farm every night. The water in the shower was always cold and the house creaked and sang its way through the nights, and though she now had her own room, it felt big and lonely and not at all like she’d always imagined it.
When she thought of home, it didn’t include a barn or a scarecrow; it was the house she’d grown up in, and she’d give just about anything to go back.
Mom turned back to the sink, fishing around in the foamy water for the sponge.
“Otherwise, what?” Ruby asked again, hoping the answer might be that they’d have to move back, pick up where they left off, pretend this year had never happened. But Mom’s mouth was set in a thin line, and she gave her head a little shake. They stood there like that for a while, one washing, one drying, neither speaking.
“So,” Mom said eventually, her voice a bit too bright, “any big plans for the day?”
“No,” Ruby said shortly.
“You two could go for a ride,” she suggested, and when she saw Ruby’s face, she laughed. “It’s not like it’s all that much cooler in here. At least on the bike you might catch a breeze.”
“I’ll ask Simon,” Ruby said without much hope. She was pretty sure neither of her parents had noticed the distance between her and her brother, caught up as they were in their own separate projects.
There was enough space here that it was easy to lose sight of one another.
After the dishes were put away and the table was wiped off and she’d changed out of her pajamas, Ruby headed back out to the barn. The sun burned her scalp and parched her throat, but she was used to that by now. The worst part was how the heat had started to make every day seem exactly like the one before, a never-ending chain of moments, all melted together like candle wax.
Now, as she neared the barn, she could hear a sound like drumming, punctuated by Simon’s laughter. Once inside, she could see that he was jumping up and down on a flat piece of metal that was suspended above another by thick, coiled springs. Beside him, Dad was frowning so hard at the lightbulb—connected to the contraption by a cluster of wires—that Ruby was surprised it didn’t light up out of sheer intimidation.
“Any luck?” she asked, letting her eyes adjust. They’d taken to calling it the TGI—the Totally Genius Invention—but so far, it had done little more than give off a few accidental sparks.
Dad seemed not to notice that she’d joined them, but Simon shook his head. “Makes a pretty good trampoline, though.”
“Want to go for a bike ride?” Ruby asked.
“Maybe later,” he said, but the way he said it, she knew better than to wait around. Instead, she crossed the width of the barn and unhinged one of the stall doors, then wheeled out her bike. But when she walked by Dad, he looked up sharply.
“Hold up,” he said, sitting back on his heels. “We were thinking of maybe heading into town. Any interest in coming?”
“New tires for the truck,” Simon said, wandering over to kick at the old ones, which were shiny and bald.
Ruby hesitated. The nearest town was a ten-minute drive, and though it wasn’t much to get excited about—there were more antique shops than stoplights—she rarely passed up a chance to go in. Still, she wasn’t exactly dying to spend the morning at an auto-repair shop.
“There’ll be air-conditioning….” Dad said, wiggling his eyebrows. “And maybe even ice cream.”
“Okay,” Ruby said, dropping her bike. “I’m in.”
While Simon ran inside to change out of his pajamas, Ruby assumed a perch beside Dad, handing over tools when he needed them.
“I’m thinking maybe this thing just needs a jump start,” he said, glancing over at the truck. “What do you say we give it a shot when we get back later?”
“Remember what I taught you about the positive and negative charges?”
“Different poles,” she said, and Dad beamed.
Science had always come naturally to Ruby. Ever since she was little, Dad had shared trivia the same way other fathers told bedtime stories, quizzing her about the animal kingdom and the solar system and the way tides work. Simon had little patience for all this, much preferring baseball to anything even remotely bookish, but for Ruby, this type of knowledge settled in the corners of her mind with an ease that surprised everyone. Most kids knew jokes. Ruby knew facts.
Dad squatted beside her with the jumper cables, the colors faded beneath a thin layer of dust. He pointed to the red one.
“Positive charge,” Ruby said, and before he could ask, she reached out for the black one. “Negative,” she said. “This is the ground one.”
“Right-o,” Dad said, giving her a little pat on the shoulder.
At the entrance to the barn, Simon appeared—now dressed in shorts and a striped T-shirt—and kicked at the ground impatiently. Behind him, the wind picked up, blowing the loose dirt from the driveway in lazy circles.
Ruby noticed that Simon’s face had clouded over at the sight of them. As usual, Dad was completely oblivious, but Ruby could feel Simon’s eyes on her as she worked, and she understood the reason without needing to be told. Dad never asked her brother to help in any kind of real way. When there were boxes to be carried or sheet metal to be scrapped, Simon was the one he called. But if there was anything more delicate to be done, anything scientific in nature, it was always Ruby he asked, and she could feel Simon’s resentment like a kind of heat as she worked.
“Hey,” Dad said now, eyeing one of the coiled pipes beneath the platform. “What if we tried connecting the wires to the base itself?”
Ruby wiped her hands on her shorts. “Town,” she reminded him, conscious of the fact that Simon was still waiting. “Let’s try it later.”
At this, Simon bolted over to the truck, hurdling a stack of books as he crossed the floor of the barn. “Shotgun,” he called out triumphantly, coming to rest with a thump against the passenger-side door.
Ruby shrugged. As she climbed into the back of the truck, her legs sticky against the hot vinyl, Simon reclined his own seat so far that it nearly rested in Ruby’s lap. She slammed the heel of her palm against the back of it, but he refused to move it up again, and she wondered why she was still so concerned about her brother’s feelings, when he’d clearly stopped worrying about hers.
But she couldn’t help it. Some lingering instinct, some fragile connection, still remained between them, like the last dying embers of a fire, and despite everything, Ruby was determined to keep it burning.
THE TOWN WAS as flat and brown as the land all around it, a collection of low-slung buildings that seemed to hunker down against the biting dust. The acres of fields stopped just outside the barber shop and picked up again three blocks later, where one of four antique stores signaled the abrupt end of civilization.
In the year or so that they’d lived here, Ruby had been to nearly every store in town—not exactly a difficult feat—but this was her first time at the mechanic’s, which was on the outskirts, an openmouthed garage big enough for three cars, set back on a sizzling apron of black asphalt.
There was only one car occupying the space at the moment—an ancient yellow convertible—and as Dad pulled the truck into the stall beside it and they all tumbled out, a tiny woman in a gray jumpsuit appeared, a streak of grease on one cheek like war paint. The name stitched across her uniform in loopy letters read DAISY. She wiped her hands on a rag and regarded each of them in turn.
“What can I do for you all?”
Simon’s face was scrunched up, and Ruby could tell just by looking at him that his definition of an auto mechanic wasn’t exactly a blond woman named after a flower. He wandered over to examine the yellow convertible, peering under the open hood, and Ruby noticed Daisy’s eyes following him warily.
“We need some new front tires,” Dad said. “I think those are pretty much shot.”
Daisy crouched beside the car and brushed a hand over the smooth rubber. “You could go skiing on these things,” she agreed, then gestured toward a second building, which sat just outside the garage. “Why don’t you go pick something out in the office?”
Dad hesitated as he watched Daisy straighten to lift the hood of the truck, which opened with a small cough of dust.
“It’s really just the tires,” he said, but Daisy didn’t even look at him.
“I’m actually pretty good with mechanics myself,” Dad insisted, and from where they were both now leaning against the convertible, Ruby and Simon rolled their eyes.
“Looks like you could probably use an oil change, too,” Daisy said. “I’ll fix you up while you pick out some new tires.”
It seemed there was no point in arguing, so Dad began his retreat to the office with a shrug. When he looked back for Ruby and Simon, he saw that neither had followed him. They stood just behind Daisy, both of them on tiptoe to look into the engine.
“They can stay,” she said without turning around, and when the echo of his footsteps on the concrete floor had disappeared, she pointed into the guts of the truck. “You two know how you can tell if you need oil?” She reached in and pulled out a long stick, which was black and slick. “This is called the dipstick.”
Simon laughed, and Daisy half turned to them with raised eyebrows.
“He’s always calling me a dipstick,” Ruby explained, and Simon nodded sheepishly.
Daisy looked amused as she wiped the stick clean with the same rag she’d used on her hands earlier. “Now,” she said, “we need to put it back in there to see how high the oil level is. Who wants to try?”
“I do,” Simon said, pushing forward to grab the stick. Daisy helped him climb up onto the bumper, pointing to where it should go. He leaned over the engine, his whole body pitched forward, his tongue poking out in concentration.
“Be careful,” Ruby said, the words escaping before she could think better of it.
“I’m fine,” Simon muttered, then jammed the stick into the depths of the engine.
There was a flash of light as he removed his hand again, and the faintest tracing of electricity seemed to stretch between him and the engine, so quick and bright that even as she watched it happen, Ruby couldn’t be sure it was happening at all.
For the second time that day, a sharp cracking sound rent the air around them. Even before the noise had faded, Daisy had Simon around the waist and was yanking him back off the hood.
A thin curl of smoke drifted up from the engine, and the three of them simply stood there, watching in stunned silence.
After a moment, Daisy turned to Simon with wide eyes. “Are you okay?”
He nodded, glancing down at his hand as if looking for an explanation, some sign of why this had happened. But it was only a hand, grubby and sweaty and lined with dirt.
“Was that…” Ruby began, but she couldn’t seem to get the question out. “I mean, that looked like…”
Lightning, she wanted to say. It looked like lightning.
But Simon’s face was twisted in confusion, and Ruby left the sentence unfinished. Daisy stepped back up to the engine, her face unchanging as she peered inside. The smoke had tapered off, but the smell of it still hung over the garage like a fog, and for a long time, they were all quiet.
Finally, Simon cleared his throat. “Sorry.”
Daisy shifted her gaze from the engine, regarding him in the way that someone might study a painting, her eyes narrowed with focus. Outside the wind picked up, and they could hear the door to the office creak open and then bounce shut again.
“Has this happened before?” Daisy asked, and Simon looked down at the oil-stained floor.
“No,” he said finally, but Ruby shook her head.
“Sort of,” she said, looking at him hard. “This morning? With the toaster?”
Daisy nodded; her face was impossible to read, but her eyes never left Simon, who shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other.
When Dad appeared at the entrance to the garage, they all seemed to tense up, and Ruby braced herself for Daisy to tell him what had occurred.
“Is something burning?” he asked as he handed over a slip of paper, the name of the tires he wanted scrawled across the page.
Daisy glanced once more at Simon, who seemed to be holding his breath. “You’ve got a faulty battery,” she said after a moment. “You’re lucky we caught it.”
“What?” Dad cried, flying over to the truck. “There’s no way. I just checked it.”
“It’s completely dead,” Daisy said patiently. “Why don’t you guys come back in an hour or so? I’ll get you fixed up with a new one, and put the tires on.”
Dad sighed. There was really no choice. This was their only vehicle, and their only way of getting home.
“We need the battery later anyway,” Ruby reminded him. “To jump-start the TGI.”
“Fine,” Dad agreed, leaning to examine the engine once more with a doleful look. “An hour?”
Daisy nodded, her eyes on Simon. “Try to stay out of trouble till then, okay?” she said, and though it was meant to sound casual, there was something strained in her tone.
To pass the time, they wandered over to the hardware store, where Dad filled a paper bag with bolts and screws and the twins filled their own bags with gumdrops and sour balls. As she replaced the lid on one of the old-fashioned candy jars, Ruby caught the briefest flash of gray out of the corner of her eye. She whirled around, her heart racing, her mind filled with the one possibility that had been trailing her like a ghost all morning.
There, on the highest shelf, resting above the rows of hammers and duct tape, the bath mats and the kitchen knives, was a gray hat.
It wasn’t even the same one; it was stiff and new, with a price tag hanging from the brim. But for a moment, Ruby had been absolutely sure of it: that he was there again, right over her shoulder—the man from the barn.
She let out a shaky breath and saw that her knuckles had gone white around the bag of candy. As she turned to make her way up to the counter, where Dad was waiting, her eyes swept the aisles. It was nothing, she told herself.
But even as she worked to settle her busy mind, to tell herself that nothing was lurking at her back, her foot caught her other leg. She tripped, pitching forward so that the bag went flying out of her hands, candy scattering across the wooden floor like marbles. When she spun around, Simon had a hand clapped over his mouth.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean for it to spill.”
Ruby glared at him until he dropped to his knees and began scooping up the skittering sour balls with both hands. It was just one of Simon’s many annoying habits, this trick of his: He loved to walk behind her, and then, with the slightest tap of his foot at just the right moment, send her stumbling over herself.
“One foot in front of the other,” Mom would always say, and Ruby would give Simon a withering look as he skipped ahead in triumph. Now was no different. As he handed her the ruined bag of candy, she could see the amusement scrawled across his face. But she noticed that his eyes were also glassy, his face paler than usual.
“You feeling okay?” she asked, and his expression darkened.
“I’m fine,” he muttered, then wandered away again.
By the time they got back to the garage, Daisy was just finishing up the last tire. Once they were ready to go, she watched them all clamber back into the truck before knocking on the door, her fist making the whole thing clang.
“Thanks again,” Dad said, starting the engine. “We’ll let you know if anything else comes up.”
“I hope you do,” Daisy said, but she wasn’t looking at him at all; she was looking at Simon. “Good luck with it.”
By the time they arrived back home, Ruby had decided she’d had enough of engines and wires and electronics for the day, so when Dad asked if she still wanted to help out with the invention, she shook her head.
“Can we do it later?” she asked. “I still want to go for a bike ride.”
“You sure?” he said, squinting out over the fields, which looked wavery in the heat. “It’s almost noon. Hottest time of the day.”
“I can help,” Simon offered, appearing at Dad’s elbow.
“Great,” he said. “You and I can clear out that wrecked metal, and then we’ll try the jump start when Ruby’s back later.”
Simon’s face fell, and Ruby pretended not to notice. “Sure you don’t want to come?” she asked, but he was already walking off toward the shed with Dad, trotting to keep up with his long stride, and so Ruby slipped into the barn alone.
Once she’d wheeled her bike outside she mounted quickly, then glided down the driveway, the tires grumbling over the rocks and dirt. She swung left down the road for no particular reason; every direction was much the same as any other, all square fields with roads running between them like the stitching on a quilt, and there was little to mark off her journey: a neighbor’s barn or a chipping silo, a sagging fence or a field of listless cows. The newly planted corn was uniformly brown where it should be green, and the wheat was stiff and parched. The world looked like something too long forgotten.
She wasn’t sure how long she rode, farther than usual perhaps, though the air was heavy with heat and her shirt was stuck to her back. The road held straight for so long that Ruby began to wonder if she could follow it all the way south to Chicago. But it wasn’t until she saw the windmills that she realized just how far she must have gone.
They stretched tall against the blue sky, looming white poles with slow-moving rotors that spun like giant insects in the air. She counted seven in all, staggered across the skyline with no apparent pattern, an eerie grouping of modern machines amid the pastures and cornfields. She was so busy looking up that she didn’t notice the old hay wagon parked just below the nearest one until she was just a few feet away.
There, sitting with his back to her, his legs dangling off the edge, was the man in the blue shirt. His hat was perched atop his head at a skewed angle, and he was leaning back on one hand, while the other twisted a piece of hay lazily in the air.
Somehow, the most surprising thing about seeing him there was just how very unsurprising it was, as if Ruby had been drawn not by the powerful windmills or the arrow-straight road, but by the man himself.
She gripped the handlebars of her bike as she tried to make sense of the situation, worked to formulate some kind of plan, to come to a decision about whether to speak up or run away. But before she could decide, the man cleared his throat.
“Nice weather we’re having,” he said without turning around. He swung his legs up onto the bed of the wagon and then swiveled to face her incuriously, like he’d been expecting her any minute, like it was only a matter of time. But before Ruby could disagree, before she could say anything at all, he removed his hat and twirled it in his hands, glancing once at the sky, and then, just like that, it started to rain.
THE FIRST TIME Ruby ever watched The Wizard of Oz, Mom had smiled and leaned in close during the part with the ruby slippers.
“Just like you,” she’d whispered, kissing the top of her head.
Even then, Ruby suspected it was her duty to wish for a pair herself, as all little girls undoubtedly should. But it wasn’t the sparkly shoes that had fascinated her.
She soon got into the habit of skipping the beginning, fast-forwarding right through the munchkins and the good witch, the banding together of friends along the way. Her favorite part was the end, the march through the field of poppies only to find that the wizard was nothing more than an old man with white hair.
Simon was always as disappointed as Dorothy by this revelation, that a wizard could turn out to be just a normal person.
But Ruby saw it differently: Normal people, it seemed, could be wizards.
And she couldn’t help feeling a bit like Dorothy now, the endless crops stretched out all around her, the rain falling fast as if the man on the wagon had conjured it himself. She closed her eyes and let it stream over her, the water impossibly cool, loosening the layers of dust and dirt and sweat that had clung to her for what seemed like forever.
When she looked up again, the sky behind the hay wagon had turned flat and gray, and she saw that the man’s hair was nearly the same color. His face was deeply tanned and lined with creases, but in a way that made it difficult to tell just how old he was. As she watched, he turned his hat upside down, peering into it as the brim grew soggy and the hollow part began to fill.
“It’s been a while, huh?” he asked, but Ruby couldn’t find the words to answer. She wiped the water from her eyes and stared up at him, unsure whether to stay or go, unsure whether he was crazy in a harmless way or a dangerous one. It occurred to her that he might be homeless, but even in the rain she could see the expensive silver buttons on his shirt, which matched the one in her pocket. Perhaps he was a thief, though if that were the case, he couldn’t be a very smart one. All the McDuffs had to steal was a pile of scrap metal in the barn and a roomful of blank canvases upstairs.
She propped her bike on its kickstand, then took a step forward. The man smiled graciously, like a host happy to see that his guest had finally decided to join the party. There was something about his features that made him seem almost a caricature of himself, his nose a bit too long, his eyes large and owlish. Ruby stared up at him as she tried to collect her words, to put together some kind of question, but after a moment, he nodded as if she’d already asked it.
“I’m here to help your brother.”
Ruby wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t that. She took a small step backward. “He doesn’t need any help.”
The man tipped his face up to the falling rain. “Not yet,” he said. “But the winds are starting to change.”
His smile was infuriating, utterly cryptic and completely untroubled even in this strangest of situations. And at that very moment, the winds did change, the rain coming down at an angle, blowing the wheat sideways. It stung Ruby’s face, and she wiped at the end of her nose, where the water had collected into a single drop. Above them, the windmills continued to churn, the water falling in sheets from the blades. She narrowed her eyes, suddenly angry.
“It’s not right, you know,” she said. “Staying on someone else’s property.”
“I’m only visiting,” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
He grinned. “Or what?”
“Or else I’ll tell,” she said, though this sounded silly even to her. “I’ll tell my parents. Or call the police.”
“You would have done that already.”
Ruby blinked, feeling the color rise in her cheeks. A flash of lightning whitened the sky, and in that brief moment of illumination, she saw a look of worry cross his face. The thunder that followed reached them with a scraping sound, like the sky itself was being hollowed out by the storm. They watched a second fork of lightning touch down in a nearby field, a blue-tinted scribble in the surrounding grayness.
The man reached into his pocket and glanced down at what looked like a watch. His eyes narrowed. “You better get back now,” he said, but Ruby straightened, holding her ground in the mud. He slid off the wagon in one fluid motion, and once he was unfolded, she could see just how tall he really was. “Go on.”
“No,” she said, so softly it was nearly lost in the weather.
He gave his hat a little shake, but it was too soaked through to wear now, a flimsy, dead-looking thing. “Simon needs you.”
Ruby stared at him. “How do you know his name?” she asked, but he was already walking away from her, pushing back the damp stalks of wheat until he seemed to disappear altogether into their midst.
By the time she turned into the long drive leading up to the farm, Ruby was shaking all over, and her fingers were numb on the handlebars of her bike. The storm had only grown stronger, and the wind blew with such force that, every so often, she had to stop and plant her feet on the ground for fear of tipping over.
As she neared the barn, she could see Dad pulling open the heavy doors, his legs braced against the gravel drive. When he saw her, his whole body slackened.
“There you are,” he said, jogging to meet her. Ruby had been expecting him to look thrilled about the unexpected arrival of the rain, but his face was grim. He threw an arm up over his eyes to keep out the cutting rain. “I was about to drive out to look for you.”
“Sorry,” Ruby said, swinging herself off her bike. “That came up fast.”
“I’ll meet you inside,” Dad said, grabbing the handlebars. He began to wheel the bike toward the open barn, then paused and turned back. “Your brother’s not feeling well. Mom’s upstairs with him.”
Ruby froze, her stomach suddenly tight. What had the man said about Simon? That he’d come to help him? The wind ripped the leaves from the corn and set them loose like confetti, and the sky was an angry purple now, the light almost completely snuffed out, though it was only mid-afternoon. She hurried toward the house.
Inside, the downstairs was quiet, and Ruby stood in the hallway, water dripping from her hair. The rain beat at the screen door, and she could hear the dogs moving restlessly in the kitchen. She was still there, standing in a small puddle on the wooden floor, when Dad came in, unzipping his jacket.
“What’re you doing?” he asked, frowning. “You’re gonna freeze.”
“What’s wrong with Simon?”
Dad shook his head. “I think he’s got a fever. He was feeling hot out in the barn, and came in to grab a drink. Your mom said his hands were like ice, so she put him right to bed.”
“But he’s okay?”
“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” he said. “You better go grab some dry clothes or you’ll catch something, too.”
Ruby nodded and began to climb the stairs slowly. At the top, she peeked into Simon’s room, where Mom was sitting on the edge of his bed. Ruby watched them for a moment—the way Mom fussed with his blankets, the way Simon’s eyelids fluttered in sleep—and she didn’t realize she was holding her breath until Mom looked over, put a finger to her lips, and then tiptoed out of the room.
“You’re soaked,” she said, closing the door behind her and then leaning to kiss the top of Ruby’s head. “Go get changed, and I’ll make us a warm drink.”
“Is he okay?”
Mom nodded, pressing her lips into a straight line. “This fever came out of nowhere, though.”
Later, as the three of them drank cups of tea in the kitchen, watching the weather report through the static on the television set, Dad said the same thing about the storm.
“It came out of nowhere,” he muttered, glancing out the window, where the rain was still thrashing against the house.
“It’s a good thing,” Mom said. “We need it. Badly.”
Excerpted from The Storm Makers by Smith, Jennifer E. Copyright © 2012 by Smith, Jennifer E.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted April 12, 2012
Reviewed by Dr. Karen Hutchins Pirnot for Readers Favorite
Jennifer Smith has made a strong debut in the middle school novel market. "The Storm Makers" is a fanciful story about a twin brother and sister who appreciate both science and magic. A mysterious stranger lurks about the family farm and the twins figure out that he has something to do with talents that lie within Simon. But Simon's twin Ruby also figures in the mystery which will gradually unfold as the twins become bolder and interested in solving the mysteries of abnormal weather phenomenon. Allie and Simon are somewhat typical preteens in that they have interests which both delight and frustrate their parents. Girls and boys alike will identify with the characters who appear to be on the verge of young adulthood and yet, they are also drawn to childlike habits which seem warm and comfortable.
I loved the way in which the adult characters interacted with the children with love and respect for the growth potential of the two children. The children were allowed to explore within the safety of parental love and trust. Their needs were seen as legitimate and the children did not violate the trust they felt in their parents. The other adult characters of Otis and Daisy also fit the mold of adults who encourage within the rubric of boundaries and safety. This is the type of book which begs for a sequel and perhaps, another as children's read about the trials, tribulations and responsibilities of growing to adulthood.
3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 29, 2012
This book was good and exciting, but the events that were exciting wasn't the kind that sent you of your couch, eyes ablaze, and can't wait to turn the page and to see what happens. The plot was, like I said, was exciting, but not too much. The characters are AWESOME, I must hand that to you, Ms. Smith! The conflict was very strong and I like it!
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 13, 2012
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Posted December 30, 2013
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