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I was dead.
Not literally, not dead-dead. I just told her, while gazing out my window at the bleak, dark, and unfamiliar surroundings, that I felt dead inside.
My mom said, "Remember when you insisted that I give you a heads-up if you got too morbid? Heads-up, kiddo."
"Don't you want to know why I feel this inner deadness?" I asked.
"Pretty sure I already do, Bertie," she said.
We had been driving for nine hours. Nearly all that time, Mom wore a freakish perma-smile. I sat beside her, Leon resting on my lap. My small and beloved and extremely lazy rescue dog farted so often, I practically needed a Hazmat suit.
"The reason I feel dead inside is because someone in this car stole my life," I said, speaking to both Mom and Leon. "Now, I'm not the kind of girl who likes to name names, so I'll just look at the guilty party and whistle."
Gazing in Mom's direction, I gave her a quick whistle.
Still smiling, she said, "Grab a ticket, Leon, we are going on a guilt trip."
Ignoring Mom's comment, I kept talking. "And now everything about my amazing life as an adorably disagreeable girl growing up in a happy house with the perfect amount of friends, and a super-fantastic father, is deader than those bugs on our windshield. Which, by my count, is like one hundred."
"Make that one hundred and one," I said as a giant dragonfly stuck itself to the windshield. I sighed dramatically, like a cruddy stage actress.
"Hate to break it to you, sweetheart, but no one can steal your happiness," Mom said. "But you can throw it away."
I groaned. Not at Mom's fortune cookie wisdom, but at the big green road sign up ahead: Welcome to Altoona, Pennsylvania. After an endless day of road travel, bad feelings, and stiff legs, Mom, Leon, and I had officially crossed over into our new, tangled-up, awful lives.
"When in doubt, Bertie, go for kindness," Mom said, as we drove through the city, just past eleven PM. "You'll make everyone's life easier, especially your own."
The odds were stacked against her on that one. I didn't feel like being kind. And I had zero interest in making anyone's life easier. I just wanted to go back home to Carver City, North Carolina. But it was five hundred and fifty-six miles in the wrong direction. I'd been watching our odometer turn and turn and turn.
Two years ago after my parents divorced, Mom and I became a package deal. Up until now we'd made it work. Mom didn't have my father's flamboyant style — he's a dashing attorney with a flair for courtroom theatrics he called his "Barcelona blood" — and she wasn't quite as much fun, but Mom was as solid and true as the Great Smoky Mountains. She made me her number one priority in all things. In her heart I know she thought this move would be good for both of us.
But she needed to think again.
Here are the distressing details of my mother's "fresh start" plan. Mom, Leon, and I were going to live with Mom's boyfriend, Howard Morton. Howard is an optometrist and a widower who lives with his two kids — Mac was eight, and Tabitha was my age, twelve — in Altoona. In September, when Mom and Howard got hitched, Howard would be my stepdad, and Tabitha and Mac would become my stepsister and stepbrother.
The moment I learned of Mom's plan, I fought it with everything I had. Nothing worked. Not my threats to run away, nor my broccoli hunger strike, nor my crying fits whenever Mom said the words "fresh start" or "Howard Morton."
Behind our station wagon we dragged a U-Haul trailer that threatened to disconnect from the hitch with each big bump in the road. In my mind it was a treasure chest of the life I left behind. Up ahead, headlights from oncoming cars cast my mom in a haunting mix of lights and shadows. It made her look like two different people.
And this is precisely when things turned from bad to spooky.
Check it out. Mom was driving a little too eagerly through the strange city streets, when a bizarre wave of dread shot up my spine and exploded into my brain. It's super important that you understand this was not the normal dread I had become accustomed to carrying around with me like my school backpack. No, this was mega-dread. Horror movie dread. I tried to ignore it, but I couldn't. It felt like someone was whispering in my ear that something horrible would happen. Now, no actual words were said, but I got the message loud and clear — we were driving toward disaster.
Hugging Leon tighter, I rubbed his velvety ears and mentally promised to protect him from whatever monsters were lurking in the dark. He had no reaction whatsoever. Leon isn't what you'd call an "emotional dog."
I wanted to warn my mom, but I stopped myself. She knew I didn't want to be in Pennsylvania, so she would never believe me. Plus, I wasn't exactly sure if I believed me.
"When I was your age, your great-aunt Tillie told me a legend about how we shape our fates," Mom said, switching to her softer storytelling voice. "According to the legend, every person is born with two wolves inside them."
"So that would mean I have two wolves inside me right now?" I said.
"Can I finish the story, please? Yes, you have two wolves inside you, and they are fighting to survive. One wolf is kind and loving and generous. The other wolf is mean and angry and selfish. The person you become, Bertie, depends upon which wolf you feed."
"You're done, right?" I asked, trying to keep fear out of my voice.
"Cool. It's a nice legend, Mom, but there's one problem. If I have two wolves inside me, I'm pretty sure I'll need to buy bigger pants ..." Before I could finish my smart-aleck remark, Mom shouted a swear word she told me to never say, and cut the steering wheel hard to the right.
Through the windshield I spotted two huge dogs in the middle of the road looking straight at us. Wait, not dogs — wolves. One was grayish and white with icy diamond blue eyes, and the other was grayish and black with hot ruby red eyes. The wolves were big and scary and beautiful, and they were about to become fury road pizzas.
"AHHH!" Mom and I screamed.
Swerving just enough to miraculously avoid hitting the wolves, Mom skidded to a hard stop. We swapped terrified looks. When I looked back at the road, it was empty of wolves.
"Where'd they go?" I said, breathless. "How could they be gone already?"
Mom shook her head in shock. "How bizarre was that?"
"Beyond bizarre. Freaky bizarre! I mean, come on, you were talking about two wolves, and out of nowhere, wham, there were two wolves in the road."
"No, Bertie, those were not wolves. This is Pennsylvania. No wolves."
"Those were wolves, Mom!"
"They were probably Siberian Huskies. Those dogs look a lot like wolves."
"And the wolves in the road looked exactly like wolf-wolves," I protested.
"Yeah ... maybe," Mom said, swallowing a jagged breath.
We sat in silence, gathering our bearings.
"Alright, I have no idea what just happened, but it happened, and it was freaky, and now it's over," Mom said, wanting me to feel safe. "Howard's house is only ten minutes from here, Bertie. I'll call and ask him if there are wolves in Altoona, okay?" She squeezed my hand and smiled.
"Okay, cool," I said, gripping her hand.
Neither of us realized the wolves were an omen.
And I didn't know the omen would launch a long parade of cosmic craziness that would forever change how I saw the world, or that my life was about to crack wide open like an egg falling onto the kitchen floor. If I had known the tragic details of the disaster coming my way, I would've done things differently. I would've found the courage to warn my mother. And I would've been a whole lot kinder to everyone involved.
Another wave of dread hit me as Mom pulled forward.
Another frozen whisper.
One last final warning.
Altoona is not a fresh start. It's the beginning of the end.CHAPTER 2
The Mortifying Mortons
"Remember, Bertie, you only get one chance to make a first impression," Mom said, after she parked in the gigantic driveway. "So don't blow it."
I still hadn't caught my breath. Mom had called Howard as promised, and he assured us there were no wolves in Pennsylvania. Naturally, that made me despise Howard even more. It was like the world was spinning out of control, and Mom couldn't see it. I was desperate to shout, "This is NOT a fresh start, Mom. Bad-bad stuff is about to go down!" But there was no way she would've heard me. She had been driving the last five hundred miles under the influence of great expectations.
When Mom opened the car door and stepped onto the pavement of Howard's driveway, she was glowing. Where I was jam-packed with dread and nightmares, Mom was overflowing with hopes and dreams.
And just like that, I knew that our first impression was not going to go according to her plans. I was about to blow it — big time. It's like when an adult tells you to not cry before they tell you a sad story, and then they tell you the story and you cry anyway. Some things, like sad stories causing tears, and me screwing things up, are pretty much automatic.
During the long drive I made a solemn vow to loathe Howard Morton and anyone connected to him. So when the front door of the house flung open and Howard bumbled out, waving and smiling, I hated him immediately. I could not believe that my mother planned to marry that big bozo. Tabitha and her little brother, Mac, appeared next. They looked different now, in person, than they did during the video chats I was forced to endure when Mom and I lived in North Carolina. I hated them, too.
I crawled out of our car. Wanted to crawl back in and lock the doors.
Howard kissed my mom and gave her a tight hug. The tornado inside my gut spun faster. Howard let go of my mom and smiled at me. He patted me on the head. "Welcome to my house, Bernice, which is also your house now."
The tornado rose from my belly and into my throat. I hate it when people call me Bernice, even though it's technically my legal name. Bernice is an old lady knitting socks in a rocking chair. Bertie, on the other hand, could be the name of a rock star or a movie star or even a musical prodigy. Someone way more spectacular than Bernice.
"Mr. Howard?" I said. "Since I believe honesty is the best policy, I got to say two things. One: There are wolves in Altoona. And two: Your house is definitely not my house."
"Bertie, that's so rude," Mom said, jabbing me with eye daggers. "Apologize to Howard this minute."
"Not necessary," Howard said, grinning and tossing an arm around Mom's shoulders. "First day jitters and all that. I'm good. Trust me, I have them too. And it's just Howard, Bernice, not Mr. Howard."
He said it again!
I wanted to accidentally stomp on Howard's foot. Instead, I fetched Leon from the car. That was when a chill passed through me and prickled my skin.
But it was worse than before. I felt a deep pang of loneliness that did not seem to be my own particular brand of loneliness, that heartache I got when I worried that everyone I loved would eventually abandon me like an unwanted dog or cat left on the side of a road. It hurt me, right down to my bones.
Have you ever seen a person at a store or some other place who was oozing so much loneliness or sadness that some of the ooze splashed onto you, and you felt sad or lonely, too? It was that kind of situation. I felt like I had taken on someone else's loneliness, which did not make a lick of sense. The people around me were happy, it seemed.
When I thought things couldn't get any worse, they got worse.
Without asking my opinion, Howard had decided that Leon would live inside a kennel in the backyard. One of the first things I did at my "new house" was put Leon in the kennel. He would be outside and alone, like a bad dog sent to dog prison for his many shoe chomping and peeing-on-stuff crimes.
Setting Leon down, I whispered in his ear, "Heads up, buddy. We are not meant for this place. Hopefully, Mom will see that, too. But Howard has got her under some kind of spell. We'll give her a week, maybe less. Before this coming Sunday, we'll be busting out of here. When you hear me say the words monkey butt, get ready to run for daylight. That's when we'll make a break for it."
Leon farted. It's his way. And it meant he agreed with my plan.
I had just left the kennel when my dog jumped up and started barking. I looked at where Leon's eyes were aimed, across the yard, and saw nothing, no animals or people. Not even a lightning bug or a moth.
"What are you barking at, Leon?" I asked. "The shadows?"
He kept yipping. I looked closer and saw the strangest thing. There were footprints in the grass like someone was walking away from the kennel. But again, no one was there.
That was the first time I felt a strange taste in my mouth, metallic and mushy. Imagine eating a stack of ten Pringles potato chips flavored with fear — it tasted just like that. I stood there breathless, shaking, and watching footprints bending the grass, moving toward the wooden fence. Seconds later the gate creaked open, even though no one had opened it. The gate closed — on its own, it seemed — and an unseen hand pushed the latch into a slot, locking in Leon and me.
My body flew into full losing-it-mode. "Help-help-help me!" I screamed, before I could think about whether screaming was such a hot idea. Even though I was with Leon, I didn't feel safe. He's not exactly a guard dog. Leon could be easily bribed into silence with Milk-Bones, and not even the flavored ones that come in multiple colors. Nope, Leon was a sucker for the basic brown ones.
Mom and Howard and Mac and Tabitha came running from the front yard.
"What's wrong, Honey?" Mom said, throwing a protective arm around me.
I checked the fence and the grass. Nothing freaky was happening. Whatever was here, was gone now. Even Leon had stopped barking.
Howard and his kids and my mom stared at me, waiting for an explanation. What could I say? My proof had walked away. So, I just pointed like an idiot and stuttered. "I ... I saw ... well ... I thought I saw a snake, but it was just a stick. Sorry for the false alarm." When I had to, I could lie pretty good.
"Poor thing, you're shivering. It's no wonder. A big move is never easy. By tomorrow morning you'll start to feel like yourself again, just watch." Reaching out, he patted my head again. That was twice now. He would pay.
Howard and his crew, including my mom, walked off. Watching them go, I wondered if the weird stuff had really happened.
"Think, Bertie. Figure it out."
Counting on my fingers, I replayed the last hour. The inexplicable evidence I'd seen and felt. I wanted it to make sense.
"One, I'm dead tired from the long drive.
"Two, my heart is shattered from leaving my father and my friends.
"Three, I'm seeing double from all the bizarro things that started after we passed the Altoona sign. The wolf thing, the warning whisper thing, the metallic taste thing, the frozen chill of a not-my-loneliness feeling thing.
"Four, I don't believe a single word of what I'm saying.
"Five, this is real, Bertie! You totally had a close encounter with ... what? A ghost? An evil spirit? Or some kind of Hogwarts banshee, or a fallen angel, or a demonic phantom ..."
Behind me, a twig snapped.
Shrieking in horror, I spun around.
It wasn't a phantom or a banshee, it was Mac. His big eyes blinked up at me.
"Do you always talk to yourself?" he asked.CHAPTER 3
I wanted to go straight to bed and sleep for a week, but Howard insisted that "the entire family" gather at the kitchen table for a treat. For the first time I hated the word family. It was supposed to mean me and my parents and Leon, and no one else.
The snack was strawberry Pop-Tarts and almond milk. I don't despise almond milk, but I prefer real milk from real cows. I can't even guess how they get milk from a dry and bland nut. I'm guessing it's painful for the poor almonds.
Before we ate, Howard said grace. The Mortons were more devout than Mom and me. We attended church, just not religiously. I listened to Howard thanking God for Mom and me safely arriving in Altoona, and for all of us joining together as a family. Us, a family? No way! I was worried that Howard would pressure me to go to church every Sunday morning. I'd probably have to wear a fancy dress and nice shoes, which I would hate, and be friendly to complete strangers for two hours, which would be impossible.
"What a great night!" Howard beamed. "The first of many, many great nights."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bertie's Book of Spooky Wonders"
Copyright © 2019 Ocelot Emerson.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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