Don't fall, Ethan scrawls in red permanent marker across the rides and signs of Sea Town. Since his brother Jason's death, Ethan can't let go of his big brother.
Don't fall, Rachel reads as she prepares to dump back into the ocean the shells her brother Curtis collected. Curtis had Down syndrome, but that isn't why he plummeted to his death from the Rock-It Roll-It Coaster.
Together, Ethan and Rachel are about to discover just how far a man will go to protect his kingdom.
With lyrical storytelling, Jonathan David Kranz spins an irresistible tale of mystery and grief, guilt and culpability.
About the Author
Jonathan David Kranz has done a lot of writing in his lifetime-advertising copy, columns for local newspapers, essays for NPR's All Things Considered-but Our Brothers at the Bottom of the Bottom of the Sea is his first novel. He lives in Boston.
Read an Excerpt
Our Brothers at the Bottom of the Bottom of the Sea
By Jonathan David Kranz
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2015 Jonathan David Kranz
All rights reserved.
following the script
Rachel did not know where she would find what she was looking for, or even what exactly she needed to find, but she was fairly certain that once she got beyond the seasonal displays of inflatable toys and neon boogie boards, she would find the homely, useful things that should be the true business of a hardware store. This one had low-hanging fluorescent fixtures and the sour smell of weed killer and burlap sacks. Like a houseguest searching for a bathroom, Rachel peeked uncertainly down the aisles. The signs suspended from the ceiling were only marginally helpful. She wished for something explicit, like "stuff you need to fix a hole in the wall."
An employee in a store apron approached Rachel, examining her as if anticipating customer needs was one of his chores. Rachel did not appreciate the attention. In general, she dressed for invisibility. She wore loose cargo pants and a white sweatshirt that sagged from her torso like a spent balloon. A blue baseball cap, with a strip of duct tape covering the sports logo, crowned her shoulder-length brown hair. Her canvas sneakers, which were originally bright blue, were now dishwater gray.
"Looking for something?" he asked.
"I need to fix a hole. In a wall."
"Yeah, it's dry." She felt a little defensive. She and Betty had at least a baseline level of competency, enough to keep the damn walls from getting wet.
The man crossed his arms over his chest and smiled. "I mean," he said with mock patience, "is it Sheetrock or plaster?"
"I don't know. It's a wall."
"Ohh-kay," he said. "How big is this hole?"
About the size of a man's fist. Not a particularly large man, nor even an especially angry man, but a frustrated man who had run out of things to say and, not wanting to leave without having the last word, had made his concluding argument in the wall.
"About the size of a doughnut," Rachel said.
"The doughnut hole or the whole doughnut?"
"The whole. The whole doughnut, I mean."
"Good," the man said. "I'm glad we're being scientific about this." He ticked off the necessary items on his fingers. "You'll need a ten-inch knife, maybe a six-inch knife, a patch kit, some mud, a mud pan —"
"Joint compound." He rubbed at a dirt spot on his apron. "You know, it might be easier to get help, have someone do this for you."
It wouldn't, Rachel thought. The guy who had left the hole in the wall was the plumber Betty had called in to fix a leaky faucet. That was a month and many noisy nights ago. The faucet still dripped, just not as much.
"We'll do it ourselves," she said.
"Then you'll need the right tools." He motioned Rachel to step aside and, while she waited, harvested the necessary items from the shelves. They made an expensive-looking pile at the counter. The man scanned them into the register, and Rachel admired the point-of-sale displays: key rings, candy-colored miniature flashlights, and little pocket knives, too adorable to be either effective tools or weapons, which would fit comfortably into a purse or pocket — which, Rachel thought, would fit very comfortably in her hand.
With Curtis, taking things had been easy. He was a walking distraction, a goodwill magnet who attracted many fans, mostly women, but men too, who threw affection on him as readily as the devout pinned dollars on parade saints. While Curtis plucked their heartstrings, Rachel plucked their tabletops, their counters, their shelves. At home, she had a dresser drawer full of cosmetics she would never use, a closet rack of clothes she'd never wear — that was beside the point. The point was a little in the having, a lot in the taking, but not at all in the using.
Now there was this man standing right in front of her, no more than two, maybe three, feet away. That would be cutting it close. But, Rachel believed, the distance between two people could hardly be reduced to a matter of inches. "You have the number of a good handyman?" she asked.
"After I just rung all this in?"
She smiled. "You might be right. I might need help. Just in case."
"You have seven days for returns," he said, turning toward a drawer behind him, "if you have the receipt and the stuff isn't used." While he rummaged for the right business card, Rachel picked an emerald green folding knife from the display, slipping it into the cargo pocket of her pants, where it hung weighty and full, like a ripe piece of fruit.
* * *
Under Rachel's bare feet, the sand shifted damp and cool. Betty, satisfied with the dark, said it was time, and they crossed the beach toward the water's edge. Betty carried the pillowcase full of shells — she insisted on it — and Rachel carried their footwear and a loose sheet of paper that shuddered in the breeze. The boardwalk world receded behind them, a blade of bright lights between the black sky above and the night-dark beach beneath it. Crashing surf overwhelmed most of the carnival chatter on the boards.
"You couldn't have ... you know?" Betty said, sweeping her free hand up and down her body to signify the clothing on Rachel's.
"It's what I always wear," Rachel said.
"That's what I mean. Just for today, I mean."
The Big Day. While Rachel had patched the wall, Betty said they had turned a corner. It had been a bad year, and they needed a fresh start. To close one door and open another, they would return Curtis's shells to the sea. They had spent the last hour working on a memorial in the kitchen, Betty dictating the meaning she was looking for while Rachel found ways to put that meaning into words. They wrote about returning home, about finding a way forward, about an end that was a new beginning.
Rachel wasn't entirely sold on the script, but it didn't matter: Betty bought it. In any event, she could hardly read it.
"You bring a flashlight?" Betty asked.
"No," Rachel said. She regretted her missed opportunity at the hardware store, the handy miniature flashlight she could have taken instead of the pretty knife.
"Shit. Can you read it anyway?"
Rachel parked their shoes side by side in the sand, and the two walked to the edge of the surf, Rachel now holding on to the script with both hands to keep it from being ripped free by the wind. She looked out over the waves but did not think about Curtis or his shells or memory — she looked ahead, anticipating how good it would feel to be in a time and place where all this would be something behind them, the wake sliding back from their boat.
"You think it's enough?" Betty asked.
"Are we just going to dump them here? Shouldn't there be more to it?" Betty shielded her eyes against a sun that was not there, saluting the dark.
She was looking for signs, Rachel thought. A kind word from the wind, a nod from the moon. Maybe something she could see, but more important, something she could feel. Betty expected something that hadn't yet arrived. Rachel needed to break the paralysis. "We could throw them," she said. It might be satisfying, grabbing a handful of Curtis's old shells and flinging them into the waves. It had been a big step just removing them from her room, which she had shared with Curtis — he hadn't been able to sleep without her. There were shells on every available horizontal surface — on the dresser, on the windowsills, on Rachel's vanity, where like soldiers, they had surrounded her hairbrush.
"Mom," Rachel said, "we can't just stand here."
"Over there," Betty said, pointing to a jagged ridge of seaweed-slick boulders jutting out from the shore into the waves. White curls of water smacked against their sides, sending up leaps of sea spray. "We'll pour them from up top. Make an offering of them."
"I don't know," Rachel said. At the far end of the jetty, mounted low to the rocks between two crossed red flags, a white steel sign shook in the wind. DANGER, it said in blunt capital letters. The sign was new. Last winter, a teenage boy had slipped from the top of the jetty and cracked his head, drowning in the water below. People talked about why and how, and the town responded by putting up a sign.
"We'll just have to be careful, that's all," Betty said.
"C'mon. Less talking, more doing." The words faded in and out as Betty released them, eaten by the wind. There was no point in arguing. Betty started for the jetty, and Rachel followed through the wet sand to the slick stones. They climbed awkwardly, making handholds in the empty air to balance themselves, crabbing their way over the cold stones, squishy with bladderwort and sea lettuce. Several times Rachel slipped, forcing an odd dance of swinging arms and jerking legs to regain her footing. Betty, walking confidently a few yards ahead, seemed more stable.
Just feet from the sign, shoulder to shoulder on the rocks, they were getting hammered by bursts of salt spray. "We'll have to make this quick," Rachel said, yelling into Betty's ear.
With the sack clamped between her knees, Betty crossed herself. "Let's get started."
It was almost impossible to see, impossible to hold the paper still. Rachel improvised, merging what she could read with what she remembered and what she could make up on the spot. "We come to this place —"
"Is that what it says?"
"Don't we start with something about God?"
"Oh, God," Rachel said, "we come to this place, a place Curtis loved, to remember and to honor and to hope." From the boardwalk, the PinDrop exhaled a deep, hydraulic sigh.
"To hope and to return" — she nodded at Betty, and Betty opened the sack — "to return what Curtis loved to the place he loved," Rachel continued. She suddenly pictured her brother with his hand squirreling down his shorts — a not infrequent occurrence — and suppressed a smile. That was a love with no place to return to.
"The place he loved," Betty repeated, looking around as if admiring the water, the waves, the jetty, for the first time. Rachel looked too, hoping this would be a last time, thinking how wonderful it would be to see it all like objects in a rearview mirror, diminishing with distance.
Betty grabbed Rachel's shoulder. Rachel thought she was about to slip, but Betty pointed to the sign between the crossed flags. "Look," she said.
"I told you it was dangerous," Rachel shouted.
"It's a sign," Betty said, almost inaudibly.
"Of course it's a sign."
Beneath danger, someone had added in a sloping, elementary school print, Don't fall.
Betty clamped a hand over her mouth as if preventing a prisoner there from escaping.
"It's just a coincidence," Rachel said. "It doesn't mean anything."
Betty shook her head.
"It doesn't mean a damn thing. We're almost done. We'll finish this, and then ... then we can move on."
"We can't. Not now."
"Why not?" Rachel asked. "Because of the sign? Because of some stupid words?"
But Betty had already slung the sack of shells over her shoulder and was mince-footing her way over the rocks to the shore.
"Give them to me, then. I'll do it by myself."
"You can't," Betty shouted from the beach end of the rocks. "This isn't a by-yourself kind of thing."
"Family," Betty said, wiggling her feet into her sandals. "The ties that bind."
When it suits you, Rachel thought. She wadded the memorial into a ball and threw it into the water, watching it bob like a little doll's head before it was overcome by the waves and drawn down into the sea.
May 17, 2013
You get the best views from the crest of the Ferris wheel: rooftop air-compressor assemblies; cooling fins, stacked like steel toast, at the power transfer station; the long narrow ghost of the railroad right-of-way where the tracks used to be, years ago, when tourists came here by train. They come by the carload now. Next week, the roads that stretch out like frayed wire will be jammed with minivans. Next week, Happy World will open for the season.
This week, Walter and I have to get things ready. This is the time of year Walter hates the most. There are a thousand details leaning on him, and one big boss bearing down. He's the classic Happy World employee. Forget Happy World "magic" — experience has made Walter a believer in Happy World power, the power of Stone. Today, after a couple of test runs of the wheel, I asked Walter to let me on for a preview of the ride. He wasn't crazy about the idea. "Stone's already got my nuts in a sling, and I promise you, they don't need any company." But I was persistent: if it wasn't safe for me, how could we open it to the public? That was hardly Walter's concern. He wanted what was safe for him.
I told him that one way or another, I was riding the wheel — we could be quick about it or we could stand around and argue all day. Every minute Walter wasted with me was a minute denied to a cold beer and a bag of Fritos. The loss was too much to bear. He gave his trademark lookout glance over his shoulder and told me to keep my head down. I got a gondola to myself and a radio, just in case. It was too noisy, crackling with grounds crew arguments over restroom duties and overtime. I turned it off.
Which was just as well. In the quiet, I could hear the hum of the motor, the whine of the capstan wheels, the regular clickety-clack of meshing gears and chain links. Then I felt something out of place, more an intuitive buzz than a distinct sensation. I licked my fingers and rested them on the mounting brackets of the gondola. Vibration. Definitely. You'd expect some resonance on a windy day, but the air was still — the banners over the park turrets hardly moved.
No, this was mechanical. And I hadn't felt it before. When I got off the ride, Walter was white as a sheet. Stone stood behind him with his arms folded. Trouble. I shouldn't have been on the wheel before the inspector's approval. Especially since I won't turn eighteen for another two months and am technically a minor. But Stone knows I'm discreet. And I've come in handy many times before. I climbed out of the car and said there was vibration.
Stone said maybe it was my cell phone. Did I keep it in my pants? He laughed, then Walter laughed too.
I didn't let them get to me. I suggested we get a stethoscope and listen to the bearings. "Vibration," I said, quoting the reference manuals, "is often the first sign of mechanical failure."
Stone wasn't impressed, but he didn't go ballistic, either. He rolled his eyes and said he had three engineers on his payroll who were paid way too much money to fuck around with stethoscopes. They've run the tests, he insisted, and the wheel was good to go.
But I wouldn't let it go. I asked if they had listened to the bearings.
If looks could kill, Walter's would've knocked me dead. I'm sure he would've settled for shutting me up. Having lost face, he was looking for the easiest way to kiss ass. "When they say it's good, it's good," he said.
Stone squinted into the sky as if reading the clouds. "If you can feel vibrations a hundred feet up in the air, there's a whole different set of bearings that need to be checked," he said.
I said it wouldn't hurt to look.
Stone told me I needed to look for a girlfriend. "At your age, everything feels like it's vibrating."
For my money, Walter enjoyed the joke far too much. I pushed the radio into his hands and walked away. Machines can be fixed. People are another story.CHAPTER 2
Chilly temperatures and gray skies covered a beach abandoned to shivering lifeguards in windbreakers, their knees cuddled up to their chins, and spindly little birds picking at the sand. Overhead, squawking gulls, fighting over scraps of fried dough, echoed a collective mood of disappointment. It was a summer day gone wrong, and that felt just right for Ethan. He tugged his hood down to the bridge of his sunglasses — his favorite pair of mirrored aviators — then buckled his hands in the front pouch of his pullover sweatshirt. He owned a half dozen hoodies he preferred, but today, he'd picked a white one without logos or lettering, cool and anonymous.
Ethan smiled because he was no longer Ethan Waters: he was a mystery man with determination in his heart and a map in his pocket. The latter, carefully scribed the evening before with a school ruler and a sharp pencil, was hardly necessary; he knew the boardwalk inside and out. But as his friend Garrett would say, It's about form. There's a way of doing things, and if you're going to do them, you got to do them the right way. Even though making the map took an hour of unnecessary time — Ethan drawing the thing on a sheet of plate glass, just like in the movies, so that his work would no leave no detectable indentations behind — and the map would never be consulted while he was actually engaged in his mission (too conspicuous), it served a purpose. Should he ever choose to let Garrett or anyone else in on his secret, he could stand up to his cross-examination and say truthfully that he had fulfilled his mission according to form, in all the right ways.
The poor weather played into Ethan's plan, thinning out the boardwalk crowds and distracting the tourists who remained. They hustled along the walk with quick steps and downcast eyes that would not notice anything unusual, even if the unusual was uncoiling just inches from their cones of soft-serve ice cream, their cardboard boats of vinegar fries.
Excerpted from Our Brothers at the Bottom of the Bottom of the Sea by Jonathan David Kranz. Copyright © 2015 Jonathan David Kranz. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Following the Script May 17, 2013,
Chapter 2: WWJD? May 24, 2013,
Chapter 3: Plan Rachel June 6, 2013,
Chapter 4: Careful with Tools June 23, 2013,
Chapter 5: Green Ribbon of Freedom June 30, 2013,
Chapter 6: A Christmas Present July 9, 2013,
Chapter 7: Island of Misfit Toys July 14, 2013,
Chapter 8: Make-Believe Ballroom Time July 19, 2013,
Chapter 9: What's Left Behind July 25, 2013,
Chapter 10: Claws August 14, 2013,
Chapter 11: Timmies and Tiffanies August 19, 2013,
Chapter 12: Circling the Tanks August 29, 2013,
Chapter 13: Rachel's Children December 13, 2013,
Chapter 14: Time to Come Back,
Chapter 15: Rats,
Chapter 16: What You Do with a Broken Shell August 13, 2014,
Chapter 17: Fathers and Daughters,
Chapter 18: Fire,
Chapter 19: Going,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Our Brothers at the Bottom of the Bottom of the Sea, is a compelling mystery following the journey of two teens searching for answers about their brothers, who died suddenly in questionable accidents. Rachel's brother Curtis, falls out of his roller coaster cart while under her watch. She is left wondering if it was his Down Syndrome that lead to the accident, or if it was a faulty ride to blame. Ethan's big brother Jason was said to have fallen into the ocean, but Jason hated water. Ethan is starving to know what really happened the night of his brother's death. Kranz has a poetic style of writing that makes it an intriguing read. The choice of words and use of phrases makes it seem like some of the paragraphs could be straight from a poem. This story deals with drama and loss, and is best suited for someone 13+. I recommend it for anyone who likes light mysteries, or a story that will make you think. The point of view jumps back and forth between Rachel and Ethan, which I found to be a little bit confusing. There are also diary entries in the book, but the reader doesn't find out until the end who the entries were written by. As a whole, I found this story to to be a great read, but not a page turner from the beginning. A few of the chapters were a bit bland, and I think they could have been more exciting given the busy plot. I found the end of the story to be satisfying, as all of the questions are answered and a lot of things are tied together. This book is definitely worth a second read, because the first time around was a struggle with the different points of views, and I think I would get more out of it the second time around.
Our Brothers at the Bottom of the Bottom of the Sea takes place in a small coastal “Sea Town” and centers around Rachel and Ethan—both have lost a brother. But when these seemingly separate losses bring Rachel and Ethan together, the two discover details about Sea Town that they could never imagine. My family goes to the shore every year, so I will admit that the setting of this book holds a special place in my heart. BUT what drew me into this novel immediately was the writing. From the first sentence I was hooked. Kranz paints beautiful scenes in this compelling mystery—and it is due to the strength of the writing, alongside the suspense of the mystery, that I highly recommend this book! Whether you have been to the Jersey Shore, or not, by the end of this novel you will feel extraordinarily connected to Sea Town and the characters you meet there!