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By Caroline B. Cooney
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Caroline B. Cooney
All rights reserved.
At 6 a.m., Billy Williams began his paper route. He had had a paper route in Massachusetts, and a simple move to London, England, was not going to deprive him of his income. Billy kept a notebook in which he listed the differences between London and Boston. The first day of his route, he wrote, "They get up much later here." The following week, he added, "They don't tip much here."
Billy liked early morning London. It was darker and quieter than his little Boston suburb, where commuters and construction workers were eager to have coffee, read their newspaper, and get started on the day. In London, Billy felt mysterious and special at dawn. He loved misty mornings when his bike skidded wonderfully in the black slick of dying leaves that passed for autumn in England.
This morning, he paused at a bricklayer's job.
You could not go half a block in London without passing a brick wall being rebuilt. This country was mad for walls. There were no shortcuts across London yards. In England, bricks were stamped with the company's name. He had four different ones at home. Now he picked up a Walsham brick and stuck it in his book bag.
Billy finished delivering his papers, rode on home, and woke his mother. Then he tiptoed into his sleeping sister's room to turn the volume all the way up on her clock radio. It was pretty satisfying to hear Laura scream when the radio shocked her out of unconsciousness.
He fixed himself a bowl of Cheerios. When the family first arrived in London, they went crazy tasting everything different. But five months had passed. Now Billy yearned for the good old tastes of home.
Billy had a number of moneymaking activities going. When the Carlsons visited last month, they'd brought Billy an entire suitcase of real food. Now he was joyfully turning a big profit on Kraft macaroni and cheese and Oreo cookies.
Of course the embassy kids and the army kids could get that stuff through the commissary, but the rest of them, whose parents worked at Kodak or Xerox or Interface, would kill for American junk food. Yesterday, Molly Morgan bought a pack of Twinkles for four English pounds. It was two weeks' allowance, and everybody agreed it was worth it.
On another page in his notebook, Billy listed his profits in two currencies. The problem was, the dollar kept falling. At first, Billy had pictured a dollar that you lost hold of, and it fell to the ground. Slowly he figured out that a falling dollar was the one you still had, but it wasn't worth a dollar anymore. It was worth ninety cents, or eighty cents. It was not good to be living abroad when dollars were falling.
Billy was irked by London banks.
At home, First Federal made a big deal over deposits. He was earning interest on his $754 in Massachusetts. Here, they wouldn't even look at you. Literally. He'd never known such a place for ignoring a future millionaire. Billy had tried three banks, and nobody was interested in handling an eleven-year-old's account.
Billy decided that a new page was called for. In his terrible handwriting, he headed it:
BANKS I WILL NOT DO BUSINESS WITH WHEN I AM A MILLIONAIRE
THEN HE PUT FOUR boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese into his book bag.
His mother was making coffee and lowering slices of Danish bacon into the frying pan. She loved the grocery stores here. She was always trying a new puffy bakery loaf or another sort of bacon. Billy personally would shut down all those bakeries and sell Wonder bread. There was a real need in London for a cheap, spongy, white bread with ultrasoft crusts.
"What are you charging today?" said his mother.
"I'm getting two pounds each from Wendy, Spencer, and Megan, but Mary Alice is trading her best toilet paper."
His mother, who had spent the first ten of Billy's eleven years convincing him to use any toilet paper, was confused.
"For my collection," Billy told her, yet again. She never seemed on top of his collections, no matter how often he showed them to her. Billy sighed heavily and brought out a dark green three-ring notebook with clear plastic envelope pages. Neatly slotted within was his toilet paper. The British specialized in toilet paper with the texture of freezer wrap. "Mary Alice says she's got toilet paper with printing on it, Mom. Property of Camden Council. Do you think she's fibbing?" There would be no box of Kraft for Mary Alice if she were.
"I've drafted my letter, Mom," he added. "Can you type it for me?"
She took his soiled, mangled scrap of paper. Laboriously, he had printed out:
I would like to be your London, England, distributor of Macaroni & Cheese, not the kind with the little can of cheese, nobody likes that. the small box with the blue top and the silver envlop of yellow fake cheese. We will both make a big profit and nobody but me has contacts all over London.
Sincerely; yours; William Wardlaw Williams
His mother promised to type it for him. Billy gave her permission to correct punctuation but nothing else. His mother promised not to change a single word. "Airmail paper," he directed her. "I don't want to spring for an extra stamp."
He was halfway out the door before he registered his mother's mild voice calling after him. "Schoolbooks?" she suggested.
Billy frowned. "Oh yeah." It annoyed him that school included school. He loved school. He especially loved London International Academy, because you had to take the tube (the subway) to get there, but it was too bad that school meant classes as well.
Billy stuffed two out of the possible five texts into his book bag, trusting that somebody in the class would be willing to share with him, especially when he still had half a bag of M& M's left. He dashed up the sidewalk, high brick walls on his right hiding the front gardens of Victorian row houses, and parked cars guarding his left. Londoners were excellent drivers. They could parallel park anywhere along their skinny little roads. Billy loved the bus and truck drivers who, without slowing down, could fit like bread in a toaster down the narrow alleys.
He passed a row of Minis. He loved those cars. They were so tiny, you always thought you could just put a strap around their middles and use them for suitcases. He raced past the church where his mother had expected to meet the kind of people she read about in British mystery novels: avid gardeners, retired mayors, and handsome barristers. It turned out, however, that nobody in London went to church but the Episcopal priests. This raised the English greatly in Billy's opinion. When he got home, he would recommend it to their minister as a timesaving device.
Once he reached the Underground station, Billy said "Hi" to the flower man, who was Asian, and "Good Morning" to the newsstand man, who was Pakistani, and "How are ya?" to the ticket woman, who was Jamaican. "Cheers," they said to him, and when he bought something, "Ta, luv." Billy loved how they said "Thank you" in Brit-speak.
He inspected all posters and signs to see if any were sagging enough that he could legitimately remove them on the grounds that they were a danger to passersby. He had collected a Journey Planner (the complete London Underground map), a pink flamingo poster advertising the Zoo, and his very favorite:
If Your Personal Stereo Bothers the Other Passengers, You Are Contravening
The Bye Laws.
Whenever his mother really riled him, Billy liked to tell her she was contravening his bye laws.
The poster he yearned for most was the Jubilee Line map, his personal tube line. It was better than anybody else's. Robbie, for example, had to take the Metropolitan, a sleazy, slow, crowded line. However, the Jubilee Line sign was firmly attached.
He decided against spending his hard-earned money on Polo candy, checked vending machines for abandoned change, and ambushed Chris and Georgie as they joined him on the platform. The boys placed bets on how soon their train would arrive. Chris had a stopwatch. Billy won and got five pence each off Chris and Georgie.
"What're you going to do with all that money, anyhow?" said Chris. "You never spend it."
"Going to China," said Billy. He patted an embroidered badge on his jeans jacket, a map of China his mother had obediently sewn on.
"No, really," said Chris.
"Yes, really. A year ago I decided I'm going to see every inch of China."
The boys considered the size of China. Every inch sounded like a lot.
Once on the train, none of them sat. It would be unthinkable to take a seat when you could stand by the doors, swaying, feet spread, refusing to hold a metal post and too short to reach a hanging strap. Billy prided himself on never having fallen into anybody.
He gazed with superiority at the businessmen and women whose briefcases were hugged between their knees. Leather cases always made him think of his family's arrival at Heathrow Airport. Signs everywhere said not to leave baggage unattended. "Are they worried somebody would steal my pajamas?" Billy had asked his father.
"No, they're worried about bombs," explained his father. "Terrorists."
Billy's mother was so horrified by that, she reacted like a shepherd whose flock is surrounded by wolves. Constantly watching their dozen suitcases and tugging to make the pile more compact, she eyed innocent strangers for signs of evil intent.
Billy yearned to abandon a suitcase and see what happened next. Either Scotland Yard or MI 5 would seize it, which would be worth the whole flight, or else a terrorist would steal it and Billy could seize the terrorist, which would be worth any two flights.
Annoyingly, his parents had refused to leave a suitcase.
The train pulled into Baker Street, where they would change lines. The three boys hurled themselves out into the belowground corridors and sets of stairs. A train was waiting, doors open, car packed. They crammed themselves in. No need to hang on to anything this time: other bodies would keep them upright.
At the third stop, they leaped from the car, and began the race to see who would get outside to the fresh air first. It was another five pence for the winner. Billy firmly believed that pennies added up, even British pennies.
But he got caught by passengers swarming onto the train, so Chris and Georgie got way ahead. Chris yelled triumphantly over his shoulder, "I'm gonna win this time!"
Billy sprinted after them, slithering among the Indians, Asians, and Africans who made up the English population that he had thought would look like Robin Hood and Maid Marian.
Passengers funneled toward the only working escalator. Tired people stood on the right side, clutching briefcases, handbags, and shopping trolleys, little wire suitcases on wheels that Londoners used to bring their groceries home. Energetic people ran up the left edge as the steps moved under their feet.
Chris and Georgie were almost out of sight.
Billy tried to elbow past some old ladies, but somebody caught his arm. Expecting to be yelled at, Billy prepared to hide his American accent. Billy didn't mind being yelled at, but he hated it when somebody inevitably muttered, "Oh, those rowdy American children!"
If there was one thing English children were not, it was rowdy. Sometimes Billy wondered if they were even alive.
Actually at London International Academy, he was in classes with every nationality except the English.
They had their own schools to go to. He was living right here in England and had tons of friends and none of them were English.
Billy decided on another new page in his notebook. He'd have a Nationality List. A Country Collection. Just in his sixth-grade homeroom were kids from Denmark, Iran, Syria, Argentina, Israel, Hong Kong, and America. He was pretty sure Juan was from somewhere else entirely, and Priya might be from India.
But the man who caught his arm actually smiled, saying, "Your friend dropped this."
Billy was amazed and pleased by this unusual helpfulness. "Oh gee, thanks a lot," he said. He grabbed the package and tore up the escalator.
Stopped by a woman who was awkwardly balancing a stroller with a baby across the width of the rising stairs, he glanced down at the package.
He didn't remember Georgie or Chris carrying anything. Just book bags slung on their shoulders.
There was something very British about the package.
The whole way it was wrapped. The cheapness of the cellophane tape. The texture of the brown paper.
He remembered the signs and warnings at Heathrow. Do Not Leave Any Luggage Unattended. He remembered the fire drills at school, which the big kids said were really bomb drills.
There was a sickening moment of knowledge.
He could not throw the package into the innocent crowd.
There was no place to set it down.
Nor could he give it back.
In front of him was a sleeping baby.
Oh, Mom! thought Billy, turning away from the stroller and wrapping himself around the package.
The package exploded.CHAPTER 2
Laura Williams took the city bus. Buses were slower than the Underground, but she met more of her friends. Plus the air was better.
Laura loved her monthly commutation ticket and the flair with which she used both bus and Underground. She cherished her knowledge of complex routes. That was true urban sophistication.
Laura stood on Finchley Road, reveling in the wind that lifted her hair and turned her skirt into a flaring tulip. Wind was so romantic. Laura waited for the 113 bus and Eddie's big, crazy wave.
Of course, nobody was as crazy as her brother, Billy.
Laura was proud of Billy, but only when nobody knew she was related to him. In public, Billy was embarrassing, and a person got tired of being embarrassed. Like the time Billy talked Mom into buying him a purple punk wig, which he wore to school with a necklace of bicycle chains. Or the many times he went to school in a suit of Dad's, pant legs rolled up six times, sleeves shoved up past his elbows, swinging his book bag like a lion trainer's chair. Plus of course the toilet paper collection and the profiteering on macaroni.
Eddie thought of himself as an exciting, disruptive kind of guy, but he was nothing compared to Laura's brother, Billy.
Right now, Laura had two concerns in life.
The first was the Junior-Senior Thanksgiving dance. She did not have a date.
Oh sure, Eddie would take her, but he was an everyday friend. Laura wanted somebody dark and handsome and mysterious and romantic. Once Laura asked Jehran to bring forth a terrific brother or cousin who would fit this need. Jehran was amused by the thought that any brother or cousin of hers would want to associate with an American girl. Jehran was from Iran, or Iraq, or one of those places, but had never lived there, as her father had been a friend to the wrong people, and they had had to flee when the other guys came to power. (Actually they had fled before that, which was the whole trick to fleeing: you had to know when to get out.) Jehran's family had tried life in Buenos Aires, and Paris, and now London, in search of a happy exile.
As for Eddie, his real name was Erdam Yafi, and he, like Jehran, was from almost everywhere. His family was fabulously wealthy and lived way out of London in an actual palace. (Laura had been there, and was very disappointed. Palaces in England did not have turrets and moats; they were immense grim stone houses with several million windows across the front. The palace in Disney World was better.) Sometimes his father's driver brought Eddie to school, but more often Eddie liked to be driven to a bus stop so he could get on a bus with other kids.
Eddie wore the oldest, most torn blue jeans in the Academy. His American accent was Texan, from the year he'd been in Houston. Eddie wanted to be with Laura every minute of the day because he loved her hair. He was always trying to touch her hair, which was deep gold and straight as ribbons. Laura would hit his hand away, yelling, "Eddie! Leave my hair alone!"
Eddie was always asking if they could go out to a pub. Laura's mother was beginning to say yes to things like that, as long as it was a group and not a date. Laura, for the last two Fridays, had had the unbelievable, completely not-American delight of going to a pub. The boys ordered beer, and Laura stuck to Coke so her mother wouldn't kill her. The other girl to go along was Consuela.
Con's father was with the American Embassy. They were originally from New Jersey, but hadn't even visited in years. They'd lived in Singapore, Cairo, and London instead. Mr. Vikary had plans for his daughter Con to make a mark in the world.
All Laura's friends studied.
Laura had never met such a studying crowd.
Not only did they study intensively, they talked about their class assignments, grades, and college goals instead of gossip or dates or basketball games or anything genuinely interesting.
Excerpted from The Terrorist by Caroline B. Cooney. Copyright © 1997 Caroline B. Cooney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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
“Exciting, compulsive reading.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Thought-provoking as well as a just plain good read.” —Publishers Weekly
Caroline B. Cooney lives in South Carolina.