When the red moon rises over the heart of the Okefenokee swamp, legend says that the mysterious golden gator Munch will grant good luck to the poor soul foolish enough to face him.
But in 1817, when TWO fools reach him at the same time, the night’s fate is split. With disastrous consequences for both . . . and their descendants. Half of the descendants have great fates, and the other half have terrible ones.
Now, Tumble Wilson and Blue Montgomery are determined to fix their ancestors’ mistakes and banish the bad luck that’s followed them around for all of their lives. They’re going to face Munch the gator themselves, and they’re going to reclaim their destinies.
But what if the legend of Munch is nothing but a legend, after all?
Full of friendship, family, and the everyday magic and adventure that readers of Savvy and A Snicker of Magic love, Cassie Beasley’s newest middle grade book is another crowd-pleasing heart-warmer—perfect for reading by yourself, or sharing with someone you love.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
From time to time, I bother to notice them.
Tourists. They come reeking of their bug repellents and their sunscreens, and theclicker-snap of their cameras nibbles away at the song of the swamp until I wonder if they can hear it at all.
In my memory, the humans who traveled the Okefenokee were a different sort. These new ones are less afraid. More curious. And, on the whole, they are quite a bit plumper.
It would be a lie to say I have not felt the stirrings of temptation. Especially in the deep summer, when the sun glazes them with sweat so that they glisten, juicy and bright as silver fish.
Scrumptious, but I resist. My business with mankind is not, strictly speaking, that of the predator.
I do have to remind myself of that when they come carrying maps. How they love those little guides with their safe paths through the swamp all dotted out and color-coded. Acres of prairie and blackwater and cypress and pine captured as lines on bits of paper. Made small as gnats.
Such arrogant morsels, you humans. That’s something that hasn’t changed.
Which brings me to the beginning, to a couple of humans long dead but still causing trouble for their descendants. Almira LaFayette, Walcott Montgomery—names from a story that is only now approaching its end.
It’s been two hundred years, and I still remember the taste of them on the night air. Thick, greedy, sweet with desperation. When they met on the edge of the swamp, the red sickle moon was cutting a hole in the black of the sky.
And in its bloody light those two bad people were looking for an easy way out of the messes they’d made. Montgomery was a horse thief. LaFayette was a murderous young bride. He had robbed a militiaman, and she had shot her husband in the gut with a revolver three days after the wedding.
Perhaps they had their reasons. I didn’t care to ask. What matters is that they ran from justice and toward me, and they reached my island at the same time.
Precisely the same time. An irksome situation for me and a tricky one for them.
I offer only one change of fate. Only one chance at a new future. Those are the rules, and they can be terribly sharp when broken.
Well. At least they didn’t use maps to find me. Even Montgomery and LaFayette knew that much.
Creatures like me don’t fit in between a cartographer’s lines.
Creatures like me . . .
We can only be found in the places where maps dare not go.
Blue Montgomery almost missed the sign. Kudzu was vining up its wooden posts, and its paint had begun to peel. It looked more like part of the wilderness around it than something made by human hands.
But his dad seemed to know where the turn was even in the dark. He steered the truck off the asphalt and onto dirt, and in the shine of the headlights, Blue had just enough time to read, Welcome to Murky Branch, GA. and, population: 339.
“’Bout two miles to your granny’s house from here!” Alan Montgomery raised his voice over the rumble of the washboard road. “I used to run from our front door all the way out to the sign. Back when I was your age. I could make it in under twelve minutes. Not bad at all.”
He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and gunned the truck’s engine.
Blue watched the woods speed by. His dad had been like this ever since they’d left the hotel in Atlanta. Talky. Casual. As if he didn’t know that every mile marker they passed stung Blue like a wasp.
There were no more mile markers out here, though. No cell phone reception either. Most of the world had no idea that Murky Branch existed.
The road curved, and through a break in the pines, Blue saw the house. Three stories of ghostly white paint and wraparound porches were illuminated by a moon that was close to full.
“Your granny’s going to be so glad to see you,” said his dad. “She’s been nagging me to bring you around for forever.”
He whipped the truck onto the gravel driveway just as the glowing numbers on the dashboard clock changed to read midnight. Rocks flew up to ping against the doors. Blue winced, imagining the scratches and dings in the new paint, but he didn’t say anything.
His dad had taken a break from racing last year, but now that he was planning to get back on the track, he only had one speed. Fast.
The truck passed an old chicken coop that was cooping a mower instead of chickens, then a shed with a roll of rusting barbed wire propped against one wall. Blue caught a glimpse of the huge garden beside the house. It was filled with tomato cages, silver pinwheels, and chin-high corn.
His dad dodged a sprinkler, bounced the truck over a coiled hose, and stopped inches from the trunk of a giant pecan tree. “Well,” he said, letting go of the wheel, “the place hasn’t changed much. You need help getting the—?”
“I’ve got it,” Blue muttered, opening his own door.
Blue’s right arm had been in a cast for weeks. He’d tried to stand up to a bully at school and, in hindsight, that hadn’t been the best idea. Fighting usually wasn’t when you were literally destined to lose.
But the arm would be fine. Sometimes, when the itching let up, Blue forgot that he was wearing the cast at all.
He reached into the truck’s backseat, but his dad was already there, stretching to grab the overstuffed duffel bag. “Let me take that for you, Skeeter.”
He set off toward the house, and Blue followed, dragging his feet.
The sounds were strange. In Atlanta, even at night, sirens and horns had screamed past the hotel where they’d been living, but here, the darkness was loud with chirring insects and frog song. Blue felt like his ears had been tuned to the wrong channel.
He reached the edge of the porch’s wide cement steps and looked up. He had a vague memory of the Montgomery house from when he was a little kid. But it was eerie now and unfamiliar.
Carved over the front door’s lintel was a scene that had been painted over so many times the finer details were obscured. Two figures, a man and a woman, were shaking hands under a crescent moon.
The columns that supported the porches were carved as well, some of them into cranes with raised beaks and others into alligators standing on the tips of their tails. The gator nearest Blue had had one of its eyes drilled out. It looked like someone had gouged the creature’s soul right out of the socket.
Blue climbed the steps and took in the rest of the porch. A pair of worn-out athletic shoes, dirty with grass clippings, had been left beside the mat. The door had a scuffed bottom and etched windows on either side. He couldn’t see through the filmy curtains, but he figured everyone in the house must be asleep.
Blue turned. His dad had dropped the duffel bag onto the porch boards. He was rocking back and forth on his heels like he always did after a long drive.
When he caught Blue’s stare, he stopped. “What?”
Blue bent to pick up the bag with his good hand. He tried to lift it onto his shoulder in one smooth motion, though its weight made his arm burn. He thought he’d managed pretty well, but even in the dark, he could see the way the corners of his dad’s eyes creased.
“It’s not that heavy,” Blue said. “I bet I’m as tough as any of the other cursed Montgomerys.”
His dad was looking everywhere but at him. “We’ve talked about this,” he said. “I’m not expecting you to get involved when . . .if it happens the way they say it will. You’re only here to visit your granny while I work some things out. The timing’s a coincidence is all.”
Blue wished he would stop lying.
The red moon only appeared once every hundred years. According to family legends, on that night one person could travel into the swamp and claim a great new fate. And when you were cursed—as Blue and half of the other Montgomerys were—a new fate was worth the risk. It couldn’t be an accident that his dad had decided to leave him here this summer, when the moon was due to rise again.
“Well,” his dad said, scuffing his feet against the mat, “go on in. Your granny hasn’t locked a door in seventy years.”
“Aren’t you going to come in with me? To say hello to everyone?”
His dad just stood there, tall and silent. He was sandy-haired, like Blue, but lately it seemed that was the only thing they had in common. Alan was one of the lucky Montgomerys. One of the gifted ones. He had a talent for winning, and as a racer, he’d been unbeatable.
Blue, on the other hand, couldn’t even win a game of tic-tac-toe.
“Nah,” his dad said at last. “I’ve got to be gettin’ on.”
Blue wondered if they were going to hug each other good-bye. He kind of wanted to, even though none of this was fair. He took a step forward.
His dad turned away. “Got to be gettin’ on,” he said again. He stomped down the stairs and paused at the bottom to look back over his shoulder. “Tell your granny I said hello. And your cousins.”
“Don’t pay too much attention to anything your granny might say about me. And whatever you do,don’t tell her I’m taking up racing again. She’s got this way of looking at things . . . well, it’s soft, that’s what, and lord knows you don’t need more of that.”
His dad was scraping one of his shoes against the patchy grass. “Bye.”
Blue didn’t reply.
Alan strode back to the pickup. Blue had picked the color. Golden brown. He could see the flecks of glitter in the paint even in the dark.
Blue cleared his throat. “I’ll see you soon, right?” he called. “You’ll be back by the end of the summer?”
The truck door opened with a clonk, and his dad pulled himself up into the high leather seat. “Just take care of yourself.”
But they were supposed to take care of each other.
The door slammed. Blue lifted his cast in a wave, but he was too late. The truck had already taken off across the cluttered yard. Its headlights illuminated the green plastic mailbox at the end of the driveway, and then it was gone.
Blue was alone on the porch of a house he only half remembered, on a night full of sounds that were all wrong.
He stared up at the carving over the door. Once upon a long time ago, one of Blue’s ancestors had won the great fate for himself under the red sickle moon. Walcott Montgomery had gone into the Okefenokee Swamp a poor man on the run from his enemies, and he had come out of it different. Luckier.
Wealth, health, long life—Walcott had had it all. And he’d changed the fortunes of every Montgomery who came after him.
If you believed the stories, it wasn’t entirely Walcott’s fault that half of the family had ended up cursed. The woman in the carving—Almira LaFayette—had been there, too. She’d made it to the hidden island at the heart of the swamp at the same time as Walcott. They’d fought.
Things had gone wrong.
But it would be someone else’s turn this time. And if Blue could be that someone . . .
How, though? Other Montgomerys would be descending on Murky Branch. He assumed it would mostly be the cursed relatives. The famous actors, millionaires, and geniuses didn’t need to show up, did they?
But even though the Mongomerys who came might have their own terrible fates to contend with, none of them were born to lose. Spelling bees, video games, hide-and-seek—it didn’t matter how simple the competition. Blue couldn’t win.
His arm itched and ached inside its cast, and as he scratched at the plaster, he realized how tired he was of being himself.
He looked around the empty porch, and the dirty athletic shoes beside the door pulled at his eyes. None of his own shoes were great for running. He’d only ever been a spectator, and running shoes were for racers. Weren’t they?
Weren’t they for people like his dad, who was probably halfway back to the highway by now, driving like he was about to cross yet another finish line?
Driving away from Blue.
Blue let the duffel bag fall hard. He kicked off his flip-flops. He stomped over to the shoes.
Racing shoes, he thought.Not-for-Blue shoes. And when he stuffed his bare feet inside of the shoes, they fit. Like they had been waiting for him.
Like they were ready to try something new.