AJ does not, under any circumstances, want to spend an entire month living with her strict Grandma Jo. Not only does her grandmother tell her how to walk, what to eat, and which rooms she can enter, she fills all of AJ’s free time with boring sewing lessons! Grandma Jo wants nothing more than to transform her adventurous, fun-loving granddaughter into a prim and proper lady…and AJ hates it.
But AJ’s dull summer takes an exciting turn when she discovers that her grandmother’s “bridge group” is actually a club of crooks! And when Grandma Jo offers to teach AJ lock picking instead of embroidery in exchange for help with a few capers, AJ is thrilled to join her grandmother’s madcap band of thieves who claim to steal only for ethical reasons.
But even the most respectable ladies can hide some truly surprising secrets, and AJ must decide for herself what it truly means to be one of the good guys.
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Classy Crooks Club
Every single piece of furniture in my grandmother’s house has a name with too many syllables.
At home we have chairs. We have a couch. We have tables. But right now my grandmother is pointing at this hulking wooden thing in the corner of one of her guest bedrooms—my bedroom, for the next month—and calling it a “mission chifforobe.” It looks like what might happen if a dresser and a closet had a really ugly baby. “I trust you’ll be very careful with this chifforobe while you’re here,” Grandma Jo says, like it’s some fragile, spindly thing I could possibly break by accident. “It was once owned by Buckminster Fuller, as was that ottoman.”
My dad puts my suitcases down next to the bed, which is big enough for five of me and so high up I might need a stepladder, and makes a sound like he finds this piece of trivia interesting. I, for one, have no idea who Buckminster Fuller is supposed to be or why I should care that his butt once touched some padded stool.
All I know for sure is that I really, really want to go home.
I’ve been at Grandma Jo’s house for all of five minutes, and I already miss my low, squishy single bed with the pillow top and my red duvet with the chocolate stain in the corner. I miss my giant corkboard covered in photos of me with Maddie and Amy and my soccer team and my parents and Ben. More than anything, I miss Snickers, but my dad’s friend Martin gets to keep him for the summer because Grandma Jo “can’t abide having a dog in the house.” She’s probably worried he’d provide too much joy or something. Grandma Jo’s not big on joy.
“Annemarie,” my grandmother says, “are you even listening to me?”
I realize I’ve kind of forgotten to pay attention for the last couple seconds, so I try to distract her by changing the subject. “You can call me AJ, Grandma Jo,” I say. “Everyone else in the world does.” I know it won’t make a difference—I tell her this every single Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter—but it’s still worth a try.
Grandma Jo stares at me from behind her half-glasses in that squinty way she always does when she’s offended by something, and her eyes almost disappear into the nests of wrinkles around them. There’s something about that look that always makes me feel like my entire body is being pricked with pins. “Certainly not,” she says, like I’ve suggested she dye her hair neon green. “Your parents gave you a perfectly lovely name, and you will use it while you’re under my roof. Respectable young ladies do not have nicknames like AJ.”
I almost point out what a double standard that is—we call her “Grandma Jo” because Ben couldn’t say “Josephine” when he was little—but it doesn’t seem worth it. Grandma Jo has always been way more tolerant of Ben than she is of me. Then again, he has it a lot easier, since she doesn’t expect him to be a respectable young lady.
“Put down your things,” my grandmother orders. I’m still holding my backpack and my skateboard, and I lay them down on the floor next to my suitcases. I immediately wish I could pick them back up. In this creepy old house it was nice to be holding on to something familiar.
Grandma Jo looks down at my stuff and wrinkles her nose. “Put that infernal plank in the closet,” she says, pointing at my skateboard with a gnarled finger decked out in a giant diamond ring. “You’re going to step on it in the dark and break your neck.”
That infernal plank? What does that even mean? I shoot my dad a look like, Seriously? But he shrugs and shoots me one back like, Please just do what she says. I’m pretty sure Grandma Jo scares him even more than she scares me, even though she’s his mom.
I let out a really obvious sigh, but I pick up the skateboard and take it into the empty closet, which smells overwhelmingly of dust and old ladies and something disgustingly chemical. Before I set the skateboard down, I run my fingers over the collage of stickers on the bottom—Ben put them there when it used to be his. There’s an exploding fireball decal on one side and that blue woman from Halo on the other, and the middle is covered with stickers from bands he likes: the Flash Mob Llamas, the Accidental Umlauts, Gazpacho Trifecta. I’ve never even heard any of their music, but I like the way the names sound.
God, I wish Ben were here right now. He’s great at charming Grandma Jo.
My grandmother gives a curt, satisfied nod once the skateboard is out of sight, and her chin dips down into the lace collar of her high-necked black dress, which looks like it came straight out of a museum. I’ve never seen her in anything else, and I wonder if she has a whole closet full of identical gowns or if she wears the same one every day.
“Now we’ll go down to the parlor, Annemarie, and I will acquaint you with the daily household schedule,” she says. “I’ll have the cook prepare us some tea.”
I hate the bitter “leaves and dirt” taste of tea. I hate that my grandmother refers to the cook like she doesn’t even have a real name. (She does, and it’s Debbie—I asked.) I hate that I have to go sit in the parlor when I could be at home in the family room, watching TV with Snickers curled up on my feet. I hate everything about this place, and I really, really hate that Mom and Dad are leaving me here for four entire weeks.
Dad must see the look on my face, ’cause he says, “Go ahead and get that tea started, Mother. We’ll be right behind you.”
“Don’t be long,” Grandma Jo says. Then she finally leaves, her crunchy skirts rustling behind her and her cane thumping on the floor. It takes her a long time to make her way down the stairs; she fractured her foot last week, and it’s all Velcroed up in one of those puffy boot things. On the other foot she’s wearing a high, lace-up leather shoe like the ones I imagine people wore before there was running water. When I hear her moving across the entryway downstairs—clomp-click-rustle, clomp-click-rustle—I take what feels like my first full breath in ten minutes.
I turn to my dad. “I can’t stay here with her,” I whisper. “Please don’t make me.”
Dad puts an arm around me and squeezes. For a second I think he’s going to agree that I can’t possibly be expected to live in this weird, echoey tomb of a house where I’m not even allowed to leave my skateboard out in my own room. But then he says, “It’s only four weeks, kiddo.”
“How am I supposed to survive four entire weeks with someone who hates me?”
“AJ, that’s ridiculous. Grandma Jo doesn’t hate you. She’s a stern person, but deep down she cares about you very much.”
From what I can tell by looking at the family photo albums, Grandma Jo did use to care about me when I was really little. There are all these pictures of her holding me and setting up tea parties for me and dressing me in frilly pink outfits before I was old enough to do anything about it. My dad is her only kid, and since Ben is a boy, I was her first opportunity to do girly stuff. But by the time I was in preschool, I was done with all that and had moved on to fire trucks and Legos and soccer balls.
Grandma Jo wasn’t interested in having that kind of granddaughter, so she kept buying dolls and pink tutus for the girly girl she wanted me to be. My parents always made me invite her to my big soccer games, but she never showed up, even though she came to all Ben’s Scholastic Bowl championships. On my twelfth birthday this past February, she sent me an etiquette book called Sister Sadie’s Secrets to Being Sweet, Seemly, and Self-Sufficient. Maddie and I spent about an hour howling over how ridiculous it was before I stuffed it in the back of my closet under a pile of old cleats. Every time Grandma Jo sees the real me with my untied sneakers and scabby knees and messy ponytail, it’s like she’s disappointed all over again.
“She thinks I’m a defective girl,” I say.
“Sweetheart, there’s absolutely nothing defective about you,” my dad says. He seems sad that I’d even think it.
“I know that, but she doesn’t. Plus, this house freaks me out. How am I supposed to sleep with that on the wall?” I gesture to the huge oil painting of a parrot hanging in an ornate gold frame across from my bed. It’s staring straight at me with its chest all puffed up, like it’s running for president or something. “You know how much I hate birds.”
“Well, that’s something we can fix, at least.” My dad hefts the painting off the wall, grunting a little with the effort. I half expect an alarm to go off, like it would in a museum, but everything’s quiet as he flips it around and leans it against the wall. “There,” he says. “Better?”
“I guess.” I sigh. “I don’t get why I can’t go to California and stay with Ben. He actually wants me around.”
“AJ, we’ve talked about this. I’m not leaving you in an apartment with five nineteen-year-old boys. They’d never do your laundry, and they’d feed you nothing but Cheetos.”
“I like Cheetos, and I don’t care about laundry!”
“I know. But if we sent you out there, you’d have to quit soccer and you’d never see your friends. You don’t want that, do you?”
“No,” I grumble.
“If you feel homesick, give Ben a call. I’m sure he’ll be happy to hear from you, just like always.”
My shoulders slump. This is really happening, and I’m not going to be able to talk him out of it. I twist the bracelet Maddie made me around and around my wrist, something I always do when I’m worried. Mom says it’s going to break if I don’t stop.
“I wish I could at least have Snickers,” I say quietly.
“I know, kiddo, and I’m sorry about that. But Martin will take good care of him. He even promised to take him camping. You know how much Snickers will love that.”
I picture my little Border collie dashing around in the woods, barking up a storm as he chases squirrels. Dad’s right; he will love that. But that doesn’t mean I’ll miss his weight on the end of my bed any less, or the way he licks my toes in the morning when I don’t want to get up.
“It’ll be nice for Grandma Jo to have some help around here,” Dad continues. “This is a very big house for one old lady all by herself, especially one with an injured foot.”
I’m about to point out that she’s definitely rich enough to hire people to help her, but I suddenly hear a really strange noise. It’s far away, but it kind of sounds like someone screaming. “Do you hear that?” I ask.
“That screeching sound. Wait. Is this house haunted?”
Dad laughs. “Of course not. It’s a very old house; sometimes it settles and makes weird noises. It was probably just the pipes banging or something.”
It didn’t sound anything like pipes banging, but before I can argue, Mom comes in, carrying my last suitcase and my mesh bag of soccer balls. “I think this is the last of it,” she says, plunking them down next to the rest of my stuff. Her bright pink shirt looks totally out of place in this room, where everything is beige and gold and printed with old-lady upholstery patterns. “Give me a hug, sweetheart. I need enough AJ love to last me four weeks.”
I hug her tight and breathe in her citrusy smell. “I wish I could come with you guys,” I say, even though I know that’s ridiculous. Mom and Dad are headed to the Amazon rain forest to do research on malaria. They won’t even have access to phones. But if I can’t have my normal life, I’d much rather be going on an adventure than sitting here waiting.
Mom rubs my back in that familiar pattern she always does when she’s trying to comfort me. “You might get eaten by an anaconda,” she says. “We can’t risk it.”
“I could totally handle an anaconda.” When my parents got home from one of their rain forest training sessions at the hospital, Dad taught Maddie and me exactly what you’re supposed to do in case of a snake attack. If you thrash around, it’ll squeeze you to death, so you’re supposed to grip your machete really tightly, lie down on the ground with your hands by your sides, and let the snake think you’re dead. Then it’ll start swallowing you from the feet up, and if you can believe this, you’re supposed to lie there and let it eat you for a while. By the time it gets up to your waist, your machete hand will be all the way inside its body . . . and then bam, you slash your arm up really quickly and cut it right open. Totally disgusting in the most awesome way possible.
Honestly, a giant snake would probably be easier to deal with than Grandma Jo. At least it wouldn’t complain about my skateboard or make me drink tea.
“We’ll take you to the Amazon when you’re older, and you can wrestle all the snakes you want.” My mom hugs me one more time. “We’ll miss you so much, but four weeks will be over before you know it. You’ll hardly notice we’re gone.”
I’m pretty sure I’ll spend the entire time counting down the minutes until I can go home, but nothing’s going to make my parents change their minds, so I might as well be brave about it. “I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I say.
Dad heads downstairs to make sure Grandma Jo has their emergency contact information. Mom turns to follow him, but then she says, “Oh, one more thing. I almost forgot.”
She reaches into her purse and pulls out Hector, the beaten-up stuffed armadillo I’ve had since I was born. Even though I left him at home on purpose—what kind of twelve-year-old still needs a stuffed animal to sleep?—I’m embarrassingly glad to see him. I make myself roll my eyes anyway. “Mom! I would’ve been fine without him!”
“Of course you would,” she says, “but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to have him around, just in case. If you don’t want him on the bed, he can guard your suitcases in the closet.”
“Then he’ll smell like old ladies. I guess I’ll leave him out.” I arrange Hector in the center of my pillow, and the bed suddenly does look a little homier. He’s not as good as Snickers, but it’s still a pretty big improvement.
Mom smiles like she knows what I’m thinking. “Good plan,” she says. “We can’t have him reeking of mothballs.”
She heads for the stairs, and as soon as she’s out of the room, I hear that weird shrieking sound again, a little more distant this time. It’s definitely not the house settling or whatever my dad said, and it sounds like it’s coming from the vent near the floorboards. I crouch down and press my ear to the grate, and the noise gets a little louder. It almost sounds like garbled words, but I can’t make them out. After a few seconds it breaks off as suddenly as it started. The room is pretty warm, but goose bumps spring up on my arms anyway.
“AJ, are you coming?” my mom’s voice calls from downstairs.
“Be right there,” I call back. I tell myself the noise was probably coming from outside, or maybe from a TV downstairs. My dad would know if this place was haunted—he grew up here, after all. But I can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t quite right in this house.
I snatch Hector off the bed, bury my nose in his nubby fur, and give him a quick, tight squeeze for reassurance. Nobody sees me, so I figure it doesn’t count.