About the Author
Delia Ray is the author of Finding Fortune.
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By Delia Ray
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Delia Ray
All rights reserved.
FORTUNE, OR WHAT'S LEFT OF IT, is only a few miles from my house. Mis-Fortune, people call it around here. Mis-Fortune on the Miss-issippi. That's because it's a ghost town. When you turn onto Front Street, you pass a crooked sign that says:
Welcome to Fortune
Population: [begin strikethrough]128 35[end strikethrough] 12
My older sister, Nora, and all my friends think Fortune is spooky because weeds are sprouting out of the sidewalks, and the windows on the old brick buildings are boarded up. And nobody has ever seen a single one of those twelve lonely people wandering around. Still, I like it there. Sometimes when I ride my bike over to the Short Stop to buy candy, I ride a couple of miles farther, just so I can suck on Jolly Ranchers and smell the big, brown river drifting past and cruise up and down the empty streets thinking about how things must have looked when the town was booming.
Dad says if it weren't for Fortune nobody in the old days would have been able to button up their shirts. Buttons used to be made out of shells, he told me, and the Mississippi happened to be knee-deep in the kind of mussels and clams whose shells were perfect for making the strongest, pearliest buttons. But eventually the shells ran dry and somebody came along and invented plastic buttons and the town of Fortune slowly withered away.
One of my favorite old buildings on Front Street has stone columns and a lion's head carved up near the rooftop, with a name and date etched underneath. McNally and Sons, Established 1901. I figure Mr. McNally and those sons of his must have been button-makers because the alley behind their building is still filled with piles of shells — all of them punched through with perfectly round holes like pieces of Swiss cheese.
It turned into a habit of mine this past year, riding to Fortune on my bike whenever I was worried about things — whether Dad was keeping safe and whether he and Mom would get back together once he came home from Afghanistan. Dad moved out two months before he left for duty. He loaded a duffel bag of clothes and Old Blue, his hunting dog, into the back of his truck and went to live in Uncle Spence's basement. "Don't worry," he kept saying to Nora and me. "It's only temporary. Your mother and I will work things out."
And I believed him at first — so much that I didn't tell anybody that my mom and dad might be getting a divorce. Not Allison or Kelly. I even refused to admit it to myself. As much as I hated my father going off to war, I decided that his year away would be the thing that fixed my parents' marriage. There were little signs everywhere to prove it. The picture of Dad in his uniform that Mom kept on her dresser. The birthday card she sent to him back in December. I peeked inside while she was searching for stamps to mail it. "I love you," she had written. "Be safe."
I remember how hopeful I felt this past April when I checked the calendar I had hung on my bedroom door and realized Dad would be home in less than a hundred days. "Only ninety-nine more," I chanted on my way out to Fortune that afternoon with my legs pumping like pistons. "Ninety-nine more ... Ninety-nine more till life goes back to normal again."
I could see it all in my head, like a 3-D movie, as I sped past the tidy farmhouses and the plowed fields — Dad arriving back at the community rec center, marching in with all the other soldiers right on time. His face would light up when he spotted Nora and me in the crowd, wearing our sundresses and holding our banner and balloons. Then he would see Mom standing behind us, and as soon as the commander announced, "Troops dismissed!" we'd all run to meet him and hug and laugh and cry. I must have played that happy-reunion movie in my mind a thousand times since then.
But lately the movie has been changing and I have to squeeze my eyes shut to try and stop it before it gets to the end, to the part where Dad hugs Nora and me, searching the jumble of faces over our shoulders. "Is your mother here?" he whispers, and all we can do is shake our heads no.
On those days, when I can't stop that awful scene from rewinding, I get off my bike in Fortune and sit on the sagging bench in front of McNally and Sons. I stare at the pretty old buildings with their "Keep Out" signs, wondering why things always have to change. Why do people have to move away from perfectly good towns like Fortune? Why do countries have to start wars? And why did a creep like Rick Littleton have to move onto our street and ruin everything right before Dad was due to come home?
When I woke up this morning though, I pushed all my worries about my parents to the back of my mind. The last day of sixth grade had finally arrived and there were more urgent issues to think about — like how to tame my mind-of-its- own hair and what outfit to wear for graduation.
"Why are you wearing that?" Mom said when I came downstairs in my fourth change of clothes and two more hair clips than usual. "There's the picnic on the playground after the assembly, remember? You can't run around and play tug- of-war in a dress. Plus I've got to get to work early today, so you'll have to ride your bike to school." She was scurrying around, searching for her car keys. "Go put your khaki shorts back on. They were perfect."
Mom promised to see me at the assembly, but when I filed into the auditorium a few hours later, she still hadn't arrived. Luckily our last name starts with W, and she ducked in the side door just in time to see me march across the stage to get my certificate and shake the principal's hand. When Mrs. Adams called me back to the stage a few minutes later to receive the Language Arts award, I could see Mom clapping and hopping up and down like I had just won an Olympic medal.
After the ceremony was over, she gave me a big hug and took a picture of me holding my trophy with its little gold stack of books on top and my entire name — Renata Jane Winningham — engraved underneath. But then I noticed Mom checking her watch for the third time.
"What's wrong?" I asked. "Aren't you staying for the picnic?"
"I'm sorry, honey," she said. "It's been a crazy morning at the office. I've got to get right back." She paused. "And I'm afraid I might have to work late tonight too. But you've got the pool party at Allison's this afternoon. Do you think you can stay for dinner once the party's done? I'm sure Carol won't mind."
"What's Nora doing?" I asked.
"She doesn't get off work till seven-thirty."
I sighed. Even though Nora's junior year was winding down, I barely saw her anymore. When she wasn't at school, she was either waitressing at the diner where she had worked since last summer or off somewhere with Alain, her exchange-student boyfriend who was flying back home to Paris in July.
"So what do you think?" Mom said. "Have we got a plan?"
I shrugged, peering around her shoulder. "I guess so," I murmured vaguely. Two teachers were posted at the doorways to the playground, passing out the memory books we had all been waiting for. Through the windows I could see my classmates already hovered over their copies, trading signatures and squealing and laughing as they turned the pages.
Mom gave me one more hug. "Have fun, honey," she said. "I'll see you later tonight, okay?" I nodded, stuck my trophy in my backpack, and ran off to get in line for my memory book.
School let out two hours early for all the graduates and I rode my bike straight to Allison's house. She had invited me and a few other girls over, and we spent the rest of the afternoon floating on rafts in her big, blue-bottomed pool, eating Twizzlers and comparing what the boys had signed in our books. But when five o'clock came and parents began arriving for pickup, I was too embarrassed to ask Mrs. Holman if I could stay. Allison had mentioned that her family was taking her out to dinner to celebrate and I didn't want to be a tagalong.
It wasn't until I was riding home on my bike, breathing in the summery smells of hamburgers on the grill and fresh-cut grass, that I started officially feeling sorry for myself. Here it was my very last day of John Glenn Elementary. I had won the prize for being the best reader and writer in my whole grade. And now I was supposed to go back to an empty house and eat leftovers?
To cheer myself up, I headed over to the Short Stop to get a piece of pepperoni pizza. I was glad when I saw who was working behind the counter that evening. Gail talks a mile a minute and always knows the latest on everything, including me. As she rang me up, she asked about graduation and how it felt to be a big- shot seventh grader now. I had just finished showing off my trophy when I spotted a new ad tacked up on the bulletin board next to the checkout counter. I probably wouldn't have noticed it if it hadn't been written in cursive. No one writes in cursive anymore, especially in ads.
I wandered over with my pizza to take a closer look. "Want to get away from it all?" the sign said. "Rooms for rent at the former Fortune Consolidated School! BARGAIN RATES! — $25 a day / $35 with meals included." I studied the picture taped in the middle of the ad. I thought I knew every inch of Fortune, but somehow I'd never laid eyes on the school before. It looked like a mansion, with its stone steps and three stories of dark-red brick. There was even a tower perched on the roof like a pointed crown. I scanned the flyer for an address, but somebody had already torn off the bottom piece that must have listed all the information.
"Hey, I've never seen this place before," I said to Gail. "How do you get there?"
"It's not too far off Front Street," she told me. "You take a right on Old Camp Road, go a little ways, and you can't miss it." She came over to gaze at the picture with a wistful smile. "My mother went to that school. And me and my brother too before they closed it down in the seventies when Fortune started running out of kids."
"It's crazy," she said over her shoulder as she stepped back to the cash register. "Hildy Baxter talked the county into selling her that old place for next to nothing a couple of months back, and now she's trying to fix it up and rent out rooms." Gail shook her head. "I don't know what she's thinking. She's way too old to be taking on that kind of a project. And Fortune isn't even a dot on the map anymore. Who in their right mind would want to live there?"
I would, I thought as I waved goodbye to Gail and went out front to eat my pizza at the picnic table. I'd climb up in that tower every day and invite all my friends to come over and explore.
I took my time at the Short Stop, chewing as slowly as possible and watching the rush of customers go by, dashing off to their weekend plans. But after my last bite, I still wasn't ready to go home. I decided to ride downtown to Mom's office and find out when she'd be done. I was used to her working late every so often, but she usually never stayed after hours on Fridays unless she was in the middle of tax season. Maybe she'd be finished earlier than she thought and I could talk her into taking me to get an ice-cream sundae at the Dairy Queen across the street.
Once I got to A-Plus Accounting, I left my bike in the alleyway next to Mom's building and headed to the back door since the front entrance is always locked after five. But something caught my attention as I rounded the corner to the parking lot. I stopped short in the alley. The lot was empty except for a black Jeep that sat idling next to Mom's car, and the Jeep's headlights were blinking on and off even though it wasn't dark outside.
Then I heard my mother's laugh. My throat tightened with dread as I carefully peeked around the side of the building. Mom was standing on the back steps of her office. I watched in astonishment as she lifted her hand to wave at the person inside the Jeep.
I couldn't see the driver's face through the glare on the windshield, but I didn't need to. I knew exactly who drove that car, exactly who had a stupid plastic Hawaiian girl in a hula skirt mounted on his dashboard, ready to jiggle her hips whenever he put his foot on the accelerator. "Please! Call me Rick," he insisted to Nora and me the very first time we met. "Mr. Littleton makes me feel like an old geezer."
Mom had promised. She kept swearing she and Rick were just friends. Only a few days ago, I had confronted her again after she had joined Rick and his dog on one of their walks around the neighborhood. That's when Mom finally threw up her hands and said if it bothered me so much, she wouldn't hang out with him anymore. No more strolls to the park together. No more offering him iced tea on the front porch whenever he came over to fix something or mow our lawn. But there she was, smiling and clutching her purse to her side as she trotted over to his car in her wobbly heels and opened the passenger door.
"Your chariot awaits!" I heard Rick say.
Mom's high, breathless voice drifted toward me across the hot parking lot. "Where to?" she asked before she climbed inside. "I'm starving!"
My mouth filled with a bitter taste like metal as I hung back in the shadows, watching them drive away. How could she? How could she choose going to dinner with Rick instead of taking me out to celebrate my graduation? And what about Dad?
My father would be home from Afghanistan in thirty-six days. I had to do something. Something drastic.
The words from the ad at the Short Stop flashed through my head — Want to get away from it all? — and suddenly, I knew. I was going to Fortune and I wasn't coming home until Rick was out of our lives for good.CHAPTER 2
NO ONE WAS ANSWERING THE DOOR at the Fortune Consolidated School. There weren't any windows nearby to peek through, but I could hear the ugly blast of the buzzer echoing through the halls on the other side of the tall front doors. It sounded loud enough to wake the dead. Why wasn't anyone coming? Gail had said the landlady was really old. Maybe she was going deaf too.
I glanced over my shoulder at the sky settling into sweeps of purple and pink behind me. It would be dark soon. Still, I'd have climbed back on my bike and pedaled home if my tire hadn't started to go flat. The last stretch along the lonely country road, where the trees petered out and the cornfields began, had felt like I was pedaling through quicksand.
As soon as I rounded the bend on Old Camp Road and saw the school with its tower rising up over the fields like a deserted island, I realized I might have made a big mistake. The photo on the bulletin board at the Short Stop hadn't shown the peeling paint around the windows or the crumbling stone steps or the rusted parts of a forgotten playground poking up from the high grass nearby. If it hadn't been for a couple of cars in the parking lot and a room-rate sign taped on the front door, I would have thought the place was completely abandoned.
I hoisted my backpack higher on my shoulders and pressed the buzzer one last time. This is it, I told myself as I held the button down for three long seconds. 1001. 1002. 1003. If no one answers, I'll leave my bike in the ditch and walk home. Maybe I'd even hitchhike. It would serve Mom right for refusing to let me have a cell phone until I started seventh grade. I was so ready to give up that I flinched in surprise when I heard the sharp click of a lock turning and someone grumbling on the other side of the doors.
"What do they think this is?" an old woman's voice croaked. "The Plaza Hotel?"
I flinched again when the door finally swung open and a blinding light shone in my face. I shielded my eyes. Was that Hildy Baxter? Listening to Gail, I had been imagining a plump grandmotherly sort of lady with white hair and spectacles. But the person at the door, with her face half hidden in the shadows of her flashlight, reminded me of one of those clowns you see in horror movies. She had on a lopsided brown wig and thick red lipstick smeared into her wrinkles, and she was wearing a droopy cardigan that hung like a sack on her stick-figure body.
"What on earth?" she said. Her voice was as rough as sandpaper.
Excerpted from Finding Fortune by Delia Ray. Copyright © 2015 Delia Ray. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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