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I'm going to start right at the beginning, the day Mom left home to become The Amazing Athena, World-Famous Human Cannonball.
Sure, first there were the epic fights, the Month of Silence, and the time Dad set Mom's hula-hoops on fire. But going into all of that would just make you think Mom ran out on Dad. Trust me — none of that stuff is important.
Dad and Will (my older brother) took her departure pretty well. And by "pretty well," I mean they seemed to think we were better off without her. Will was convinced she'd left Dad for a circus performer. And Dad? Well, her absence was a touchy subject with him. The first time I blurted out how things were better when Mom was around, he didn't talk to me for days.
She went missing the same day I started sixth grade. Will and I came home to find the house looking "a little odd." (Those were Dad's exact words to Grandma: "The place looks a little odd." Personally, I think saying "The place is destroyed" would have been a better way to put it.)
Even from a block away, Will and I could tell. The windows stood open and our dark red curtains billowed out, getting tangled in the rhododendron bushes. I ran ahead, but was too nervous to open the front door, so I waited for Will while anxiously gnawing the insides of my cheeks.
The moment Will cracked the door, water poured out onto the porch. The front hall's bathroom sink was overflowing, flooding the entryway. Will slogged through the standing water to turn off the faucet while I poked my head into the living room. The couch's smoldering, smoking cushions smelled like burnt lemon custard, like they'd been lit on fire and then doused with a pitcher of lemonade. Our old box television was facedown on the floor and two sets of booted footprints, one narrow, one wide, danced up the wall.
Then there was the kitchen. The blender was running. The dining table was on its side with only three legs attached (we never did find the fourth). Six steak knives were stuck into the pantry door in a perfect vertical line. The last knife pinned a note at eye level, scrawled in handwriting that didn't quite look like my mom's.
I made it into Bartholomew's Circus of The Incredible! Sorry to leave so abruptly — and sorry about the mess. I'll be in touch soon.
The P.S. part of the note was torn off in a jagged line, like someone had changed their mind. I wanted to tear the note down and crumple it up, but instead I just slid to the floor and sat there staring up at it, blinking away the pressure behind my eyes.
"What are you doing?" Will, who hadn't noticed the note yet, was peering down at me. "Poop Lip — wait, are you crying?"
I scowled at his smirking face. Poop Lip. One unfortunately-placed freckle — not a mole, a freckle — one concentrated cluster of melanin, one overly pigmented spot just above my lip and, thanks to Will, nearly every kid at Brenville Elementary and Brenville Middle-Senior High called me Poop Lip. The town we live in is small and Will's reach was long — even the old man at the gas station once called me Poop Lip. I just stared at him. I couldn't think of anything to say.
I guess I was lucky that at least my dad, my teachers, and Elliott Carson (my best friend) called me Ryan, which is my middle name. I go by Ryan because my first name isn't exactly normal, but I'll get to that tragedy later.
When dealing with Will, you need to follow two simple rules. Rule number one: Never question him. Not unless you want to walk away bruised and possibly wedgied. And rule number two: Never show weakness. Not even if your mom destroys the house and then abandons the family.
I wiped my nose before standing up. I realized I was shivering — maybe I was cold from the windows being left wide open. I pulled the note from the pantry door and handed it to Will.
"Mom left," I told him. "With the circus. She's gone."
Will skimmed Mom's note. He looked even angrier than usual. "Of course she's gone," he said, kicking a can of green beans so it skittered across the floor. "How long has she been trying to get out of here?"
Will had a point. Even though I was the only one who had known Mom was serious about joining the circus, anyone could see she wasn't happy. Brenville and her talents didn't exactly mesh. But even though I knew she wanted more excitement, I always thought that if she left, she'd take us with her.
I never thought she'd leave me behind.
Dad got home a few minutes later and the three of us just stared at the mess and the note and then — get this — no one said anything. Every time I started to speak, to ask what we were going to do, Dad glared and Will elbowed me in the armpit. Can you imagine? No, you can't, because it's not normal.
But then again, no one in my family is normal. So, instead of talking, Dad went upstairs to shower, Will called in a pizza, and then we sat and ate dinner in front of the broken TV, as if Mom trashing the house and leaving with the circus were the most normal thing in the world.
* * *
It's common sense that if someone goes missing and your house looks like a tornado went through it, you call the police. Dad didn't. He made a few late-night phone calls that I couldn't quite hear through the heating vent, but he must have decided to trust what she wrote in the note and to leave it at that.
Maybe he was just relieved to be rid of her. Whenever he found her doing something "weird" or "crazy," he and Mom fought like stray cats. Like when he came home to find her teaching me how to throw knives. Or when she dyed her hair orange and red so that it looked like flames. Or when the neighbors called to complain that she was leaping from fence post to fence post in front of their house. Or the time, on a family hike, she somehow got on the back of a wild elk and rode it for a whole twenty yards. And that was just the stuff Dad knew about.
Brenville's a small town. If you stand out at all, you may as well start your own reality TV show because everyone is going to know everything about you anyway. So the neighbors talked. And Dad? Dad just wanted to be invisible.
The day after my mom disappeared, my best friend and next-door neighbor Eli Carson told me the Story of the Black Van. Eli had been home sick on the first day of school (which he's been getting away with every year since second grade) and happened to look out his window to see a black van pulling up in our driveway. An unmarked van. It definitely did not have Bartholomew's World-Renowned Circus of The Incredible scrawled across the side like you'd think it would if it had been there doing anything normal or official. No, it was a plain black van with tinted windows. Oh, and it didn't have license plates.
Eli kept watching because he thought the van was weird — and because he didn't have anything better to do. He said it was there for exactly forty-three minutes and that he heard banging and crashing coming from inside the house. He never saw Mom, but he did see two creepy men heave a big black bag into the back of the van right before it left, tires squealing down the street.
"And you didn't think to call the cops?" I asked.
"I didn't know your mom was going to be missing," he said. "Anyways, one of the guys was all pale and really tall. Like a vampire version of Conan O'Brien. The other guy was like an Incredible Hulk, weight-lifter type. Looked like a pile of bricks. Man, I can't believe they kidnapped your mom!"
Yeah, he said it just like that. No build-up, no saying it in a Do-you-think-this-is-possible? kind of way. Just bam! Dropped the bomb without even thinking. Of course, he argues over who actually said it first, but this is my story and I can say with complete certainty that I am pretty sure it was Eli.
Will was dribbling his soccer ball around the lawn like nothing had happened when I ran to tell him about the Black Van. He snorted, but didn't look up. "So what you're saying," he said, dancing around the ball and breathing hard, "is that you and The Eel think she was kidnapped?"
I jumped as Will kicked the ball hard against the fence. It always hit the same spot. He'd put one toe on it, fake left, fake right, then: Pow!
"Maybe," I said, trying to sound more casual than I was. Will made me nervous. But then, Will made everyone nervous. I think he even made our parents nervous.
"Why would a circus kidnap somebody?" Will asked.
"Maybe so they don't have to pay them?" I ventured.
"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard."
I flinched again. He was kicking the ball really hard. Harder than usual. But I wasn't going to let it drop.
"What about the bag, though?" I asked. "It was big enough for a person."
"Maybe it was her makeup," he said. I worked up enough confidence to glare at him. "What? Seriously! They wear a lot of makeup in the circus," he said, before firing the ball again.
The look on Will's face made it clear that unless I wanted him to refocus his attention from the soccer ball to me, the conversation was over. So I kept quiet for a while, but I thought about it all the time. It wasn't just the destroyed house and the Black Van and the large-enough-for-a-person bag. There was more. Much more.
A few weeks later I started getting postcards from my mom. Postcards with secret messages, saying things like "Help me" and "I'm in trouble," all hidden within seemingly happy notes. And all in her handwriting — or handwriting that was close, like she'd written them in a hurry.
No matter how ridiculous it seemed, it was true — my mom actually had been kidnapped by the circus.
* * *
Even before the postcards, Eli and I had looked into The Incredible. What we found wasn't very encouraging — in fact, it was downright sketchy.
The website for Bartholomew's World-Renowned Circus of The Incredible was kind of underwhelming. It had only a few pictures and a schedule that listed just a handful of shows. Eli and I knew from news websites, though, that the circus performed a lot more often than that. And news stories were easy to come by. Bartholomew made headlines wherever he went — and not just because people were clamoring to see his shows.
Bartholomew's Wikipedia page linked to all the legit news stories: There had been an "accident" where three trapeze artists had died (getting weird). Then there was a tiger mauling where a guy lost his tongue (getting weirder). People said the circus was cruel to its animals, that it didn't pay workers on time, but the circus got out of any legal trouble, swearing these were lies from angry ex-employees. Eli thinks Bartholomew bribed the investigators.
And all that? That's not even close to the weirdest (and worst) stuff. Wikipedia noted someone had created a forum, IHateBartholomewsCircus.com, where people shared even more stories — dark, bizarre stories. The sort of thing my dad would have yelled at me for reading. So of course Eli and I read every conversation on it. People on the forum said that Bartholomew had sold his soul to the devil. That he used dark magic to turn his audiences into zombies. That he'd helped fix the 2005 Tour de France. There's more, but I'll tell you about that later.
It all came down to this: I wasn't the only person who thought there was something strange about The Incredible. Okay, all the devil, weirdo-stuff sounded too stupid to believe, but if even some of it was true, it was bad news for my mom.
I wasn't really surprised that Dad didn't take my kidnapping theory seriously. Adults seem to lose their ability to think about anything strange or out of the ordinary. But Will, who knew evil inside and out, should have sensed that something was off.
Over the next ten months, Mom sent me twenty-five postcards, and half of them had secret codes. Each time I got a new one, I brought it immediately to Will. I've never seen anyone laugh so hard.
"How could it be more obvious?" I fumed, shoving the postcard from Last Chance, Colorado, in his face. "Read it."
"Come on," he said. "Circuses don't kidnap people. Don't be a moron."
"Just read it," I repeated. "Read it and tell me she isn't asking for help."
And so he read it out loud:
Everything is going well!
Lots of fun people to meat and
Places to see.
My cannonball thing is going really great.
Everyone thinks I'm the best they have ever seen!
"She's trying to get my attention," I insisted. "I mean, look how she spelled 'meet.'"
Will squinted at the card and then back at me.
"You seriously think there are hidden messages in these things, Smarticus?"
I wanted to think that maybe he was hiding his fear to protect me. That maybe, deep down, he saw how weird and scary the whole situation was. But when I pointed out that the first letter of each line, going from top to bottom, spelled "HELP ME," he laughed so hard, he farted.
"Why would she write that in there, huh?" I asked.
"It's a coincidence!" he exclaimed, after containing himself and wiping a tear from his eye. "Look, you know how a hundred monkeys pounding on a hundred typewriters for a hundred years —"
"Yeah, yeah. They'd write a play," I said, rolling my eyes. I hated his guts right then.
"Yeah. Everyone knows that. It's a scientific fact," Will explained. "But it doesn't mean anything. Besides, what about the other postcards? She sends you some without all the ... what did you call them?"
"Clues," I huffed, pulling the card out of his hand and tucking it back in an envelope with the others.
"Clues!" Will giggled. "Some don't say anything secret, though, right? Why would she do that?"
I thought about it for a minute and then shuffled through the envelope until I found one I liked, the one with the skull of a triceratops on it. It was from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
Hello, my sweet one. Today it rained, and I thought of you. Remember last summer when we got caught in the rain in the park and we waited under a tree for it to pass? You told me about helping the pigeon with the red yarn tangled around its foot. I said I was very proud of you, yet you were sad. You asked me why such things happen. I didn't have an answer then, and I still don't have an answer now. But I do know that the world is better with you in it. I will always think of you when it rains.
There weren't any clues on it — at least none that I could find. And it was written so much better than the others.
Why was that?
"Maybe she's being tricky, so Bart or his goons don't catch on. One normal note, one note with a clue? That's harder to figure out, right?" I suggested as Will snatched it out of my hand and began to read,
"Dear Spartacus," he began, speaking in that high lady-voice he used when he imitated Mom — or any girl, for that matter. "You don't know how much I miss you and your lovely and generous brother Will. Will is the best brother you could —"
"Give me that! It doesn't say that!" I lunged for the postcard, but he hopped up onto the sofa he'd been sitting on and, holding a hand over my face, jumped up and down while continuing to "read."
"The best brother you could ask for. In fact — oof! Watch it, Poop Lip! — In fact, I've told your father to give your allowance to sweet William for the next four years and — Ooh, Poopy, now you've done it!"
There's no reason to describe the scuffle blow for blow, so let's just cut to me, back upstairs in the safety of my room, tending my bruises and taping the postcard back together. (Will had turned it into confetti and stuffed it down my pants.)
As I taped the last piece into place, I had to admit Will had a point.
Why would only some of the cards have clues and not the others? And why would the ones without clues make it sound like she was having a great time?
But what I'd said to Will about her being tricky also made sense: she wrote and sent the normal ones to make it appear like everything was fine, just in case someone was reading them. Or maybe she even wrote them in front of others. And maybe she mixed in the other postcards — the ones with the clues — secretly. But she still put them in code, just in case.
That made total sense — right?
* * *
Before we get any further, I suppose I should address the whole Spartacus thing. Mom was pretty smart, but she seemed to have had a brain fart when naming me. I don't think it crossed her mind that growing up in a town the size of Brenville might not be easy for a kid named Spartacus Ryan Zander. Then again, her name was Athena, which is just as ridiculous, so maybe I should blame her parents — then again, we never visited her parents. Mom never told us why. It'd just always been that way.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Spartacus Ryan Zander and the Secrets of the Incredible"
Copyright © 2018 Molly Elwood.
Excerpted by permission of Regal House Publishing.
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