A companion novel to Priscilla Cumming's highly acclaimed The Red Kayak and The Journey Back
Thirteen-year-old Kate Tyler must ask herself how far she will go to protect her older brother, J.T., when he returns home after nearly a year in a juvenile detention facility, only to find himself ostracized and bullied as he attempts to make a fresh start. Kate compromises her own values and risks getting herself into serious trouble as she launches a secret campaign to protect her brother long enough for him to find his place in the family – and in the world – again.
As a follow-up to Red Kayak, Cheating for the Chicken Man brings J.T., Kate, and Brady Parks together again as they struggle with the complicated issues of fairness, friendship, and forgiveness.
* "Kate’s perspective is authentic. Especially for readers who enjoyed Red Kayak, this novel is an engaging choice that offers a different perspective on a tragic event." —School Library Connection, starred review
"Realistically presenting the situational rather than absolute nature of some difficult choices, this engrossing novel provides lots to ponder and discuss." —Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Priscilla Cummings is the author of eight novels for children. She lives in Annapolis, Maryland.
Read an Excerpt
The funeral was on a warm October day with a high blue sky and a single wispy white cloud that drifted, waiting like an angel, Kate thought. Her mother said they had been to Arlington National Cemetery before, when Kate’s grandfather was buried, but that was ten years ago, when Kate was only two, and she didn’t remember. Standing outside her grandmother’s car, Kate brought her hopeful gaze down from the sky and took in the cemetery around them, gathering a little bit more strength from the beauty of the majestic trees that had turned the yellows and reds of autumn and shaded the endless rows of identical white tombstones.
Her grandmother had suggested that Kate and her five-year-old sister, Kerry, wear simple summer dresses because it was so warm, and carry a sweater in case it got cold later. So Kate had chosen a favorite blue jersey with tiny white dots and wore the ladybug earrings her father had bought for her a year ago at the county fair. She reached up to touch an earlobe while her mother and grandmother finished collecting things from the car. It was a bittersweet memory, that fair, because it was the last time Kate could remember her father going anywhere fun.
After the car was locked, Kate and her family set out across the parking lot to a special building. Kate was surprised to see so many people. Tourists, she guessed, judging by their cameras and the casual way they were dressed in shorts, jeans, and T-shirts, their outfits topped off by baseball caps and sun visors. Could they tell that Kate and her family were different? That they were here to actually bury someone? Kate desperately hoped these people wouldn’t be allowed at the funeral. It didn’t seem right and only added to the anxiety she already felt.
After a short walk to the administration building, they were directed to a special room, which, thankfully, was just for them. Although Kate knew her older brother, J.T., couldn’t be there, because Mom had forbidden it, her eyes nevertheless swept the room, just to be sure. When she spied Uncle Ray and Aunt Helen standing nearby, talking with familiar neighbors, Kate took in and let out a deep breath. Then suddenly, her best friend, Jess, was there, opening her arms.
Kate embraced her. “I didn’t know you were coming,” she murmured into the mass of Jess’s red curls. She and Jess had been best friends since first grade, when they met at a homeschoolers’ field trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. They were the only two brave enough to hold a giant hissing cockroach in their hands that day.
“Of course we came,” Jess said. “We’re all going to miss your dad.”
When the two girls released each other, Jess asked, “Are you doing okay?”
Kate slowly lifted her shoulders in a shrug, but thought, Not really.
Jess leaned in close. “I saw Brady Parks last night.”
Kate’s eyebrows went up. “You did?”
“I ran into him at the 7-Eleven.”
Kate felt her heart squeezed yet again. It had been weeks since Kate had seen Brady. She had known him all her life. He lived next door, after all. He was a year older than Kate and best friends with her brother. Who knew when it happened, but at some point, probably sixth grade, a year after she entered public school, she had secretly developed a crush on Brady. No one but Jess ever suspected.
“Brady said to tell you he was really sorry to hear about your dad,” Jess told her. “He said that he and his parents would have come to the funeral, but they were afraid it might not go over so well.”
Kate’s eyes widened even further, but she understood. It was Brady who had reported Kate’s brother and another friend to the police after a prank ended tragically with the death of a little boy. For weeks afterward—up until the day J.T. was sent to a juvenile detention center—the boys didn’t see each other, and didn’t text or talk. Kate always figured they wouldn’t want anything to do with each other ever again. And she just assumed that included her as well.
“Are you sure?” Kate asked. “Brady said that?”
Jess nodded, but there wasn’t time to discuss it any further, or think about it just then, because an army officer was directing them on to the ceremony.
Back outside, a slight breeze stirred the sultry air. Kate glanced downhill, across the Potomac River at the city of Washington, DC, where she was surprised to see in a straight line, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol. It made Kate proud that her father had fought in the Gulf War, and another wave of sadness rolled over her.
People attending her father’s funeral got back in their cars and drove in a small caravan to a different location. Kate hadn’t realized the cemetery was so big, although she knew from her grandmother that several funerals were taking place the same day, as many as twenty. Some were even happening at the same time, in different parts of the cemetery. The Tylers had had to wait three weeks for a burial date, and it had given Kate nightmares, the thought of her father on hold in “cold storage,” awaiting his turn to be buried. But in the end, the delay had given them some extra time, which turned out to be a good thing.
Kate later wrote in her journal.
We parked again. I told Kerry she had to leave her Barbie in the car. Then we walked the rest of the way. Grandma and Uncle Ray stayed with Mom. Sometimes it looked like they were holding her up. Kerry held tight to my hand. Everyone followed the four black horses that pulled a caisson with Dad’s casket on it. It was sunny and getting hotter. I wished I had my sunglasses. The horses’ hooves clip-clopped on the hard asphalt of the narrow hilly road. Once we had to step around a fresh, steaming pile of horse manure.
When we arrived at the gravesite, a small military band was already there. An open-sided tent provided shade for two rows of chairs that were covered with the same color blue velvet as the inside of J.T.’s trumpet case. Probably just a coincidence, but I did wonder if it was a sign.
The chaplain talked about Dad. He said Jacob Tyler was an honest, hardworking man who loved his wife, Angela, and his children, J.T., Kate, and Kerry. When Kerry heard her name, she leaned against my side and we squeezed hands again. It made me feel good that J.T. got mentioned. My brother practically ran the farm after Dad got so sick he couldn’t work. But I worried all over again about what was going to happen to the family business and to us now that our father was gone.
When the chaplain talked about how much my father loved the Chesapeake Bay, where he’d grown up and lived most all his life, I saw Uncle Ray cover his eyes. The chaplain didn’t talk about this, but I remembered how Dad and Uncle Ray, who was a waterman, liked to go fishing every so often before dawn and how sometimes Dad would bring home a huge rockfish with glistening scales that filled the entire kitchen sink. How come we didn’t take Dad out on the bay one last time so he could feel the breezes he loved so much? We knew he didn’t have long to live. We could have bundled him up in quilts and taken him out on Uncle Ray’s workboat.
Kate’s journal description of the funeral ended there because after the chaplain finished and led them in prayer, the ceremony had shifted gears and Kate didn’t want to write about the rest. She didn’t want there to be a written record of what she had done.
“Present arms!” an officer barked in a loud, crisp voice. Everyone stood. Seven soldiers who were lined up on the hill before them raised their rifles angled toward the sky.
“Prepare to fire!” the voice called out. Kerry, who had folded her hands for the prayer, reached out for Kate’s fingers.
“Ready . . . aim . . . fire!”
Seven rifles fired at the same time, cracking open the sky. Kerry jumped, grabbing Kate’s hand with both of hers, and startled birds scattered, their wings beating the air. Three times, the order rang out. Three times, the soldiers fired simultaneously, their volleys honoring her father’s military service.
When the guns fell silent, Kerry’s grip let up, but Kate held her breath with anticipation because she knew that, in a moment, a bugle—or a trumpet—would sound taps.
Her mouth went dry as she counted to herself: One . . . two . . . three . . .
Day is done . . .
The poignant and familiar opening notes rang out somberly.
Gone the sun . . .
People shifted uncomfortably. Uncle Ray put an arm around the shoulders of Kate’s mother. A lump formed in Kate’s throat while she tried to figure out where the trumpeter stood.
From the hills . . .
Somewhere behind them.
From the lake . . .
All those years of Brownie Girl Scouts. Kate couldn’t help but hear the words in her head as taps was played.
From the skies . . .
Neither could she help but turn her head to look. He was hard to see, but through misty eyes, Kate discerned her brother’s tall, lean profile on the crest of a small hill about fifty yards behind them. He wore black pants and a dark jacket, and Kate could tell that his hair had been cut really short. The silver instrument in his hand glinted in the late-afternoon sun. Miss Laurie, his counselor at the juvenile detention center, must have made time in his schedule for him to practice. Good for J.T., Kate thought, sighing with relief. A subtle, secret smile slowly graced her lips.
All is well . . .
On the song’s highest note, Kate slowly faced forward again. She didn’t think anyone else had looked back, the way she had. So no one else in her family would ever know.
Safely rest . . .
A tear slid down her cheek.
God is nigh . . .
As the trumpet’s last note lingered in the still air, Kate held her breath against a wall of overwhelming sadness but took comfort in knowing that not only had she honored her father’s dying wish, she had protected her brother as well.
Miss Laurie, I’m calling for my mother again. . . . She wants you to handle it this way because J.T. being there, it might upset some people. . . .
The lie had been so easy.
A small lie, yes, but so what if you did it for your family?
After taps, two soldiers lifted the American flag that covered her father’s coffin and straightened it with a dramatic snap before folding it, over and over, into a neat triangle. Like a reflection in a mirror, the two soldiers wore identical crisp blue uniforms. Their eyes connected as if by rods, their faces stern and expressionless as the folding flag drew them together, step by step. The flag was presented to Kate’s mother by the chaplain on bended knee. “On behalf of the president of the United States . . . a grateful nation. . . .”
When Kate turned to look again, the crest of the hill was empty. J.T. was gone, having quietly, and quickly, disappeared. As they had discussed.
Kate had done what she had to do, and no one else knew. No one else would ever need to know.
Only later did Kate look back on her father’s funeral and wonder if that kind of thinking was where her own downfall began.
What happens next?” Kerry asked, tugging on the skirt of Kate’s dress.
“I think it’s over,” Kate told her. “We walk back to our cars.”
“Are we going home, then?” She pouted. “I want my kitty. I want Jingles.”
“I don’t know, Kerry,” Kate said, distracted. She glanced at the hill behind them to see if it was still empty. “I’m not sure if we go straight home or not.”
Suddenly, a commotion up ahead had people scrambling.
Kate glimpsed her mother, crumpled on the ground, with Uncle Ray bending over her. Pulling Kerry along, Kate began to run toward them.
Aunt Helen stopped her. “Kate, let me take Kerry,” she said.
“No!” Kerry whimpered. “I’m scared. What’s wrong with Mommy?” But Kate released her sister into Aunt Helen’s arms and rushed on.
Was it a heart attack? Kate’s own heart pounded high in her chest. Her mother’s hand was up at her throat, like she was struggling to breathe. Was she going to die the same day they buried her father? Kate’s hand covered her mouth. Could something like that really happen to people?
Uncle Ray stood up. “It’s okay,” he told the chaplain, who was pulling out a cell phone. Her uncle’s voice was surprisingly calm. “You don’t need to call for help. It’s a panic attack. She’s had them before.”
“He’s right,” said Kate’s grandmother, who was kneeling on the ground beside Kate’s mother. She looked up at the two men. “She needs to focus on her breathing. Give us some space. Please.”
The chaplain turned to the gathering crowd and held up his arms. “She needs space! Some privacy, please!”
People stopped and, haltingly, moved away. Kate brought her hand down, but stayed kneeling beside her grandmother.
“She’ll be all right, hon,” Grandma said, tapping Kate’s knee before leaning over Kate’s mother. “Angela, a deep breath. That’s it! In on five. Now hold for two.”
This was all new to Kate. A panic attack? Breathing and counting? Kate had thought she knew her mother’s secrets. But apparently not.
It took Grandma two hours to drive from the cemetery to the Tylers’ home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. By the time they arrived, it was late afternoon, and Kate’s exhausted mother went straight to bed. The two girls changed into jeans, while Kate’s grandmother fixed them grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner. Kerry was allowed to keep the cat on her lap while they ate, and no one spoke much. Even Tucker, J.T.’s border collie, seemed to pick up on the mood and lay quietly beneath the kitchen table, surrounded by their feet.
A low rumble and the grating sound of a large truck shifting gears distracted them. Kate pushed back her chair and, flip-flops flapping, went to the living room picture window that faced the road. “Darn!” she muttered, disappointed to see a gray-colored school bus crunching over the long oyster-shell driveway.
“What is it?” Grandma asked when Kate returned to the kitchen.
“The new chicks are here,” Kate told her.
“Oh, dear,” her grandmother sympathized. “They wouldn’t even give you the day off for your father’s funeral.”
“It’s fine, Grandma. No big deal,” Kate said, quickly putting her best face on it. “We knew they were coming; I just forgot. Uncle Ray already asked me to do it. He had to get home for that plumber, remember? Something happened to their well.”
“Well, bless your heart,” Grandma said, reaching for a napkin. “Here, take the sandwich with you.”
Kate waved her off. “It’s okay,” she said, sitting on the floor to pull on old sneakers. “I’d rather eat when it’s done.”
When she was ready, Tucker scrambled through the back door before Kate and rushed across the yard, barking at the bus-turned-delivery truck as it beeped and backed up to a long, low building. VALLEY SHORE CHICKEN FARMS was written in big black letters beneath the bus windows. This was the business that hatched the chicks and delivered them to the Tylers to raise. Every nine weeks, 54,400 chicks were brought to the farm. Funny, but after all these years, the company’s name suddenly struck Kate as absurd. There were no mountains on the Eastern Shore of Maryland—it was flat as a pancake—so how could there be valleys? But it sounded nice, didn’t it? Valleys and shores. If people only knew, Kate thought.
The bus stopped, and with it, the irritating beep, beep, beep.
First things first.
“Tucker!” Kate called, clapping her hands. When the dog trotted to her side, she took hold of his collar and gently led him into a toolshed off the tractor garage. “Just for a little bit, okay?” The dog sat and looked up at her. “No bark. Stay!” she ordered, showing him the palm of her hand.
After closing the shed door, she walked across the yard to where the bus had parked at one of the two chicken houses. She entered a number combination that unlocked the door and stepped aside so the deliverymen could begin unloading plastic trays full of newly hatched baby chicks. Each tray held about a hundred chicks, and both men carried about ten trays stacked one on top of the other, like a tall and very noisy bread delivery.
“Good afternoon,” Kate said politely.
“Afternoon there, young lady,” one of the men said. He was chewing tobacco—a wad of it made one cheek bulge—and after he greeted her, he turned his head to spit a dark stream of juice into the dust.
Uncle Ray had spent almost a week getting ready for the baby chicks. Using a backhoe, he had scraped the floors clean of caked manure, then hosed everything off, stocked the feeders with smaller, starter feed, and freshened the water supply. Even though the early fall weather was still warm, the nights were cool, and a propane heater had been blowing hot air into the building for twenty-four hours so it would be a toasty ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit for the chicks, most of whom were only hours old.
Kate stepped out of the way a second time. She wanted to tell the men that they didn’t have to throw the chicks at the feed line the way they did. It seemed so cruel. But she didn’t say anything or interfere. She wasn’t supposed to get involved—just keep the dog away, open the doors, and check on the delivery afterward.
While she waited for the two workers to finish dumping their delicate cargo, Kate sat on the toolshed’s cement steps. Arms crossed and hugging her elbows, she thought about her father. She was glad he wasn’t suffering anymore, but she was going to miss him so much. All those long Scrabble games, his corny jokes and hearty laugh, his big bear hugs, even the war-injured knee that gave him a heads-up when it was going to rain.
And J.T. Was he back at the detention center? Had he and Miss Laurie stopped somewhere for lunch? It was a long way out to western Maryland. Was he glad he had come to the funeral? Had he seen them? Did he have any idea what Kate had done to find that trumpet and get him there . . . ?
Kate thought back to the day her father died and how, the same afternoon, she had defied her mother by unlocking her brother’s bedroom to begin her search for the instrument.
She understood why her mother had closed up J.T.’s room after his conviction in juvenile court. “No one goes in there, do you hear?” Red-rimmed eyes and the way her mother held a hand, limp on her chest, were clues that beneath a hard shell of anger, a heart had been broken. But hers wasn’t the only heart to break. Downstairs on the couch, Kate’s father, too sick to go to court, didn’t speak until the next day. And Kate was left to wonder if hearing about how they took J.T. away in handcuffs hadn’t hastened her father’s death seven weeks later.
Kate’s world had been tipped upside down, too. And while she knew why J.T.’s room was shut off, she also knew there was a key to unlock all the bedroom doors in her mother’s jewelry box. The top tray of necklaces, rings, and pins lifted out. Underneath was where her mother stored important things like keys, baby teeth, old silver dollars, and the Purple Heart Kate’s father had been awarded after he was wounded. Kate and her brother had secretly examined these treasures many times. Kate simply plucked out the key she needed.
She had only an hour that day to get into J.T.’s room and find the trumpet before her family returned from the hospital where Kate’s father had died. Still, she hesitated once more before putting the key into the lock. She didn’t want to disobey. She loved her mother, even if her mother had changed. Kate thought to herself that she would gently explain how it was her father’s wish, whispered to her during a final visit, that J.T. would play taps at his funeral—even though Kate suspected her mother would forbid it. But this is what made it so hard: While it was true that her brother had made a terrible mistake that shamed the family, it wasn’t his fault that their father got sick. It wasn’t right for their mother to blame him for that, too! But she did, forbidding him to be at the funeral.
It was a tough call going against her mother’s orders, but Kate was changing as well. She had already started doing things—adult things—that most kids her age didn’t do. She put the key into the lock and turned it.
When she entered J.T.’s bedroom that day, a wall of stuffy, hot air hit her because both of the windows had been closed and the air-conditioning unit turned off. She hadn’t been in the room for weeks—no one had since J.T. left—and it startled Kate to see that her brother’s bed had never been made. Neither had his dirty socks been picked up from the floor, nor the water glass retrieved from the bedside table.
A thin patina of dust had collected on J.T.’s desk. She made a path with her index finger, then wiped the dust off on her shorts and closed the cover that had been left open on his laptop. Every spare minute he had, he’d been on that computer. Most kids at school probably thought he was a nerd, but Kate knew better. J.T. made her laugh, and he was a genius when it came to math and science. He knew how things worked, and not just computers, but tractor engines, fertilizer, and generators, too.
Kate picked up her brother’s Game Boy and then set it back down on the desk beside his copy of Lord of the Rings, his place kept with a triangular bookmark that looked like a slice of pizza. Her eyes flicked to a shelf above his desk where a framed picture of a black and white puppy prompted a faint smile. Beside the picture was a plastic “magic wand” that her brother had used not so many years ago in magic shows down at the tractor shed. Kate remembered sitting on prickly hay bales in the audience with J.T.’s friends Digger and Brady, clapping and chuckling at the performances.
They were best friends, those three boys. But could they ever be friends again after what had happened? It seemed impossible. And yet Kate had wondered how a bond so strong could simply disappear. When J.T. came home in seven months, it would be hard enough not having his dad, but what was going to happen when the boys eventually saw each other in school? If J.T.’s two best friends couldn’t be his friends anymore, then who would be? Everybody needed at least one friend. Who would want to be J.T.’s friend?
Maybe growing up on the farm and being homeschooled all those years made them closer. But J.T. was the best brother anybody could wish for. Kate knew this for a fact, because he had protected her in a special way that neither of them would probably ever acknowledge out loud.
Was prison changing him? When he came home, would he be the same inside?
Kate needed her brother to be the same inside. It was the first step to saving her family, she had decided. And it was the reason she did not quit searching until she finally found the trumpet, buried under clothes, in the back of J.T.’s closet. She sat with the case on her lap and opened it. Inside, the silver instrument her father had passed on to J.T. lay nestled in faded blue velvet. Kate slid the trumpet case under her own bed and gave an extra tug to the dust ruffle to be sure it was hidden. Then she locked up J.T.’s room and returned the key to her mother’s jewelry box.
After her grandmother arrived, Kate took the trumpet case—wrapped in brown paper and addressed in black marker—with her when they ran errands.
“Big package,” her grandmother commented, finally noticing the parcel on Kate’s lap as they pulled up to the post office. “What’s in there?”
“A cat!” Kerry piped up from the backseat.
Kate and her grandmother chuckled.
“Just something J.T. will like,” Kate said.
Grandma frowned slightly. “I thought you couldn’t send him food.”
Kate did not meet her grandmother’s eyes. “Because of Dad, they’re making some exceptions. I’ll be right back. Do you need stamps or anything, Gram?”
The workers who delivered the chicks were tossing empty trays back into the bus, and the noise startled Kate out of her daydream. “All done, miss!” one of them called out.
Kate signed off on some paperwork, freed Tucker, and went to work, checking the temperature in each of the houses once again and then entering with a bucket and a flashlight to survey the new arrivals. The chicken company had long ago required her father to shut all the windows and put up blackout curtains so the chickens would think it was night all the time. That way, they ate more, didn’t move as much, and grew faster.
Shining her light around, Kate could see that most of the chicks were fine, just tired from a long trip and ready to sleep. However, a few had not survived, so she waded carefully through the mass of young life peeping and swarming around her feet and began picking up the dead ones with her bare hands. Delicately, she placed them into the plastic five-gallon bucket she carried. Kate tried never to think too deeply about this, but just did what needed to be done. She knew it was all part of how her family made a living.
The bucket of dead chicks grew heavy and took the strength of both of Kate’s arms to carry it across the yard to a metal shed. Inside the door, she set the bucket down and, trying not to breathe the putrid air, grabbed a shovel and jammed it with one foot into the feathery compost pile to make a hole. After dumping the dead chicks into the opening, she tossed the bucket to one side. Quickly, the palms of her hands touched, and she murmured, “Please take these chicks to heaven!”
Grabbing the shovel a second time, she pushed some manure on top of them and then rushed outside. She took in a gulp of fresh air—well, as fresh as it could be on a chicken farm—and strode briskly back to the house.
Is there a letter?” Kate’s mother asked. She sat looking out a window in the dining room, but there wasn’t much to see. It was late autumn, and the harvested cornfields had been left with acres of cornstalk stubble that stretched all the way to a tree-lined river in the distance.
“No letter,” Kate said as she set a pile of mail down on the dining room table and swung her backpack onto a nearby chair.
At least her mother was interested, Kate thought. For a moment, she stared at the back of her mother’s head, at the long, dark hair coiled into a neat bun and the blue woolen shawl her mother had pulled tight around her thin shoulders.
“Maybe you need to write to him first,” Kate suggested gently. But she didn’t think her mother ever would.
In the seven months following his father’s funeral, J.T. never wrote his family a single time. Neither had he called, even though Kate knew he was allowed to make one twenty-minute phone call a week.
Still, Kate did not give up. She wrote her brother once a week—twenty-eight letters total. Sometimes, she handwrote the letters and enclosed them in note cards with pictures of endangered animals. Other times, she used her computer and printed out pages full of updates on the farm and the family. (They sprayed the fields today with that chemical, so everything’s brown again and ready for planting. Can’t you just hear Dad telling us how, in the old days, he’d plow and then harrow before planting? “Dangit, now they don’t even turn the soil!”)
She kept him abreast of the eighth-grade basketball season and groused about math. (Algebra is getting hard. I’m really going to need your help!) She described the middle-school dance on Valentine’s Day. (Very weird. Everyone just kind of danced in a big group.) She even appealed to him for advice. (Kerry keeps asking me about heaven. Is there furniture? What do people eat? Can they have cats? Kerry thinks I have some inside information on this. What should I tell her?)
She told J.T. how Uncle Ray, in addition to his own work crabbing and fishing, came twice a day to take care of the chickens. J.T. didn’t know that Kate had secretly become a vegetarian, but he was well aware of her love for animals—pandas, polar bears, tigers—the ones the world stood to lose. So once, for lack of anything else to say, but wanting to keep the letters upbeat, she filled him in on the new elephant at the National Zoo—a female named Bozie who had moved from the Baton Rouge Zoo after she lost her longtime partner. (It was on television, the day Bozie arrived in a big white truck. Isn’t it great people recognize elephants are herd animals that need other elephants?) But J.T. never commented on it.
She didn’t write about the social scene at school and how the other girls seemed to be moving a lot faster than she was, some of them wearing heavy eye makeup and gossiping about which boys were cute and weekend parties where there was beer. Not that Kate was totally disinterested in parties or boys. But in all honesty, Kate still thought the epitome of cute was the poster on her closet door of a baby black rhino. “The ears especially,” she told Jess, who totally agreed.
Thank goodness for Jess, Kate thought. They still liked a lot of the same things. Beyond that, Jess was always so upbeat, too, insisting, for example, that Kate was lucky because she never broke out and didn’t need braces while Kate still saw herself as hopelessly plain. A real Plain Jane. A girl on the skinny side who hated tight clothes, so everything she wore puckered or hung loose. A girl with unexciting brown hair that hung in erratic waves to her shoulders unless she straightened it—and she hated straightening it. A girl who seldom broke out, true, but whose skin was so sensitive she never tanned, only burned and got red.
Only once did Kate write about her mother’s troubling behavior. (She had another panic attack yesterday. She collapsed on the front steps when she was on her way to the doctor with Grandma. Now she won’t drive, and ever since that last panic attack, she hasn’t wanted to leave the house, not even to go to church.) Nothing prompted J.T. to write back. Didn’t he care anymore?
Finally, in her last letter, Kate let J.T. know that her birthday had come and gone in April. (I’m thirteen now! A teenager—yikes! Kids at school still tease me about being the class baby, but that’s because Jess and I skipped a year when we entered public school, remember?) Again, no response from J.T.
Nine months J.T. had been away. It went so slowly—and yet, so quickly, too. Because suddenly here she was, Kate thought, sitting in the school gym, at the end-of-the-year eighth-grade assembly. Tomorrow J.T. would be home. In three months, she and J.T. would be in high school together. Maybe by then, life would be back to normal.
“Our next award goes to Kate Tyler!” Mr. Coburn announced, startling Kate. Her heart jumped—she hadn’t been paying attention—and just then, the microphone screeched, making everyone cringe before the principal continued.
“Not only did Kate write some beautiful poems and insightful essays this year, but she conceived the idea of Corsica Middle School’s first literary magazine, Wingspan, to promote creative writing. Thirty-two of you Herons were published and left your tracks with poems, illustrations, and essays in the first editions of Wingspan. Kate worked closely with faculty adviser Heather Landon on all three issues. Let’s give them both a big hand!”
Jess elbowed Kate, then squeezed her arm and clapped enthusiastically. Kate, embarrassed by the attention, reluctantly stood, then picked her way down the crowded bleachers and padded across the wood floor. Mrs. Landon gave her a hug, and then the principal shook her hand and gave her a certificate along with a Blue Heron mug filled with Hershey Kisses.
“We need to celebrate the end of school,” Jess said as the two girls walked toward their bus. “How about if I talk my mom into taking us over to the Annapolis mall? We could watch a movie and get frozen yogurt. We could go shopping for sunglasses!”
“This weekend?” Kate was not sharing Jess’s excitement. “That would be great, Jess, but remember, J.T.’s coming home tomorrow morning.”
Jess grimaced. “Oh, my gosh, Kate. I totally forgot.”
Just then the two girls were jostled and separated, then forced into a haphazard line to board the bus.
Kate hadn’t forgotten J.T. was coming home. She had seen her brother only once since the funeral seven months ago. The week before Christmas, Kate’s grandmother had driven them out to the detention center. The journey was long—six hours— because snow flurries had slowed them down.
Their visit took place in the prison’s small cafeteria. J.T. couldn’t take any gifts or food back to his dormitory, but he was allowed to eat during the visit, so Kate and her grandmother had stopped at a Subway shop along the way and picked up J.T.’s favorite sandwich, along with a bag of potato chips, a giant chocolate chip cookie, and a soda. Kate remembered thinking her brother would be excited to see them and ravenous, practically inhaling his favorite food, but he was neither. He was quiet as he sat across from them and seemed tired, taking only a couple bites before he wrapped the meatball sub back up and told Kate to eat it on the way home.
“Those sunglasses can wait,” Jess said when she and Kate found a seat together on the bus. “Don’t worry about it.”
Kate turned, a slight frown wrinkling her brow, before she remembered what Jess was talking about.
The next morning, Uncle Ray stopped by the house early so Kate could go with him to the nearby courthouse to pick up J.T. who had been driven there for his official release.
“Good luck,” Kate’s grandmother said as she stood in the doorway beside Kate’s silent mother, their arms linked. Had Grandma forced her mother into the doorway?
“You ready, Kate?” Uncle Ray asked, settling his Nationals baseball cap back on his head. He didn’t always wear that hat, and Kate wondered briefly if it was to get a rise out of J.T., who was an Orioles fan.
“Yes—oh, no! Wait a minute!” Kate exclaimed, suddenly remembering. She dashed back upstairs and grabbed a paper bag of clothes for J.T. from the top of her desk so he wouldn’t have to wear his prison uniform home. The outfit included J.T.’s T-shirt that said KEEP CALM AND REBOOT, which Kate thought was incredibly appropriate, a pair of his favorite jean shorts, some white ankle-high socks, and old sneakers. Sitting beside her uncle in the truck, Kate clutched the bag of clothes on her lap and prayed silently all the way to town that her brother would still be the same inside.
Despite the late May heat, it was almost cold in the courtroom because of the air-conditioning. Uncle Ray took off his hat, and the two of them chose seats toward the back. When J.T. walked into the courtroom, Kate gasped. It was still a shock to see her brother’s hair buzzed off. His hair was so short she could see the shape of his skull. He seemed thinner, too, if that was possible. And even with the air-conditioning on, he was dressed way too warmly in boots, long blue pants, and a sweatshirt that hung on his lanky frame. Still, Kate ached with happiness that her brother was finally coming home. She was doubly glad she’d brought those clothes for him, even if she did have to surrender them to a deputy, who promised to give them to J.T. after his court appearance.
Excerpted from "Cheating for the Chicken Man"
Copyright © 2016 Priscilla Cummings.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
Praise for Priscilla Cummings' The Red Kayak and The Journey Back:
A Bank Street College “Best Children’s Books of the Year for 2013”
An ALA Best Book for Young Adults 2006
A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, 2005
VOYA’s Review Editor’s Choice List, 2005