One Square Inch

Claudia Mills

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

1
Sometimes magic turns up in unexpected places. Not real magic, if there is such a thing, which my younger sister, Carly, still believes in but I don’t, at least not anymore. But magic that you can sort of pretend to believe in. Magic that is real enough, and sometimes realer than anything else in your life. Looking back, I think it’s strange that it was Gran-Dan of all people who first gave Carly and me the deeds to Inchland.
We were visiting him in New Jersey, Carly, my mom, and me. Our family is just the three of us, so we did everything together: my dad was killed in a car accident when I was only four and Carly had just been born. I don’t know if I have any memories of my dad, or if I just think I do because other people have told me stories about him.
Anyway, we were in New Jersey, and it was hot, hot, hot, so much hotter than it ever seems to get in Colorado, and Carly and I were playing pirates on Gran-Dan’s wide back porch, which I have to say made a great deck of a pirate ship. I was the pirate king, of course. Betrayed by my own men, gravely wounded, weakened by loss of blood, I turned to face the enemy. “Die, you mangy dog!” I shouted, brandishing my fearsome sword.
“No, you die,” the enemy retorted.
The pirate king’s blade slashed through the air. “Die, I said!”
“I can’t die!” The enemy’s voice rose higher. “I can’t die now, Cooper. I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Aw, Carly.” I shoved my cardboard sword back into its cardboard scabbard. “You always have to go to the bathroom right when you’re about to be stabbed.”
“But I do have to go.”
“Well, go then.”
Carly flashed me a relieved smile. Off she ran, her bobbing blond pigtails making her look more like a seven-year-old than a bloodthirsty pirate. The beanbag parrot she had taped onto her shoulder fell off as she disappeared into the house. I followed after her and picked it up.
“Pieces of eight,” I made the parrot squawk.
“Aw, pipe down,” I said to the parrot.
Hot and sweaty now, I plopped onto a worn wooden chair by Gran-Dan’s kitchen table and looked out the window into his huge shaded yard. There were so many more trees of all kinds in New Jersey than in Colorado. The yard was full of great places to make a secret fort or castle or pirate lair.
I lifted my damp hair off my forehead. It was hard to get used to the warm, sticky air.
A cool glass of lemonade might help. Just as I was pouring it, Gran-Dan appeared beside me. I gulped down half the glass in two swallows.
“You’re drinking too fast, you’ll get a stomach cramp,” he said.
That was what Gran-Ellen always used to say, but I’ve never had a stomach cramp and never heard of anyone getting one, except in Gran-Ellen’s warnings about drinking cold liquids too quickly on a hot day. She always used to say it like she was really concerned about how terrible a stomach cramp would be if we actually got one. For Gran-Dan, it was one more thing he could be critical about.
“Where’s your mother?” he asked. “I haven’t seen her yet this morning.”
The question irritated me. Gran-Dan had to know that my mom was still sleeping. It wasn’t that late, maybe ten o’clock, maybe ten-thirty. Counting the two-hour time change, it wasn’t late at all. Besides, lots of people slept longer when they were on vacation.
“I think she’s still asleep,” I said.
Gran-Dan looked at his watch. “At quarter till eleven? What grown adult sleeps until noon like a teenager?”
Before I could answer, Carly came back into the kitchen. Gran-Dan’s eyes lit up at the sight of her. It was okay with me, I guess, that he liked her best.
“Ahoy, matey,” he said by way of greeting. “How’s the pirate business?”
Carly giggled. “Cooper was about to stab me to death, but then I had to go to the bathroom.”
Gran-Dan chuckled. I knew he thought it was silly that an eleven-year-old boy would still be playing pirates, but I only did it for Carly. Well, mostly for Carly. If my mom had been feeling better, she would have been in the game, too, as the pirate queen, and Gran-Dan would have thought that was even worse.
“Where’s your mother?” Gran-Dan asked Carly. Apparently, it wasn’t enough that he’d already asked me, and that I had already told him.
“Sleeping,” Carly said.
Gran-Dan checked his watch again.
“She loves to sleep,” Carly said.
Gran-Dan gave a snort of disapproval.
Fortunately, I heard soft footsteps on the stairs. My mom was finally up, though still in her bathrobe, her reddish curls uncombed.
“Good morning,” Gran-Dan said. The “morning” was obviously sarcastic. Then he asked, in a kinder voice, “Are you feeling all right?” For Gran-Dan, the only possible excuse for sleeping so late would be if you were sick, preferably dying.
“I’m just tired, that’s all,” Mom said.
“The best thing when you’re tired isn’t excess sleep, it’s exercise,” Gran-Dan announced. “If I’m tired, I take a brisk walk, or a bike ride, and it does the trick every time.”
Well, maybe everybody in the world wasn’t like Gran-Dan. But I wasn’t going to say it.
“When was the last time you had a checkup?” It was clear that Gran-Dan wasn’t going to let this thing go. “You might have mono. Remember that girl in your class who had mono in high school? If you’re that tired, you should be having a checkup.”
There was an awkward silence.
“Well,” Gran-Dan said with fake heartiness. “We’re going into New York tomorrow, and down the shore on Tuesday, but what are the plans for this afternoon? We may be getting a late start, but that’s no reason to waste the whole day.”
“Stay here and play?” Carly said. I was grateful Carly had said it first, not me.
“Come on, you two can play any time. This is your chance to do some sightseeing. What about Morristown? See Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War? Cooper, you must have studied that in school last year. Schools still teach some history these days, don’t they?”
The thought of walking around looking at old Revolutionary War cannons in the 97-degree heat had zero appeal to me.
“We just got here yesterday,” I said, hoping Gran-Dan would think that was a reason to laze around doing nothing, or what he would think of as doing nothing.
“Emily?” Gran-Dan asked my mom.
“Staying here is fine with me.” She didn’t look up from untying and retying the belt on her robe.
Gran-Dan shrugged. “That’s settled then,” he said. If he was disappointed, at least he didn’t say it.
Carly blew upward at her bangs. “It’s hot today.”
“It’s cooler down in the basement,” Gran-Dan suggested. If I had said anything about the heat, Gran-Dan would have said, “Complaining won’t make it any cooler.” The only thing Gran-Dan hated more than sleeping late was complaining about anything, unless Carly was the one doing the complaining.
Gran-Dan’s house wasn’t air-conditioned—he didn’t believe in air-conditioning—but he tried to keep the house cool with drawn drapes and ceiling fans. It wasn’t very cool right now.
“We could play being Eskimos!” Carly said. “We could make an igloo out of … What could we use to make an igloo, Cooper?”
I wasn’t exactly an expert on igloo building, but I tried to think. Big blocks of ice and snow. Styrofoam might be good.
“Do you have any big blocks of Styrofoam?” I asked Gran-Dan.
“I imagine I could find some.”
He led Carly and me down to a corner of the dark basement piled high with boxes stacked on the bare concrete floor; he must have had the boxes for everything he had bought in the last forty years.
“A lot of these cartons have Styrofoam inserts,” he said. “Use what ever you want, but make sure you put everything back where you found it.”
Gran-Dan’s house was completely neat and organized, ever since Gran-Ellen died three years ago. She and my mom were the two creative, messy ones; Gran-Dan was the one who liked order and neatness and everything in its place. I liked order and neatness, too, but I couldn’t see keeping dozens of Styrofoam inserts, each one tucked carefully into its original box.
I was glad when Gran-Dan went upstairs and left Carly and me alone to start building.
An hour later, we had a large, if somewhat lopsided, Styrofoam igloo. I did most of the construction work, but I like building things. Carly had run upstairs and found some of our mom’s old dolls and was putting them to bed inside the igloo’s snug walls. Carefully, she bundled them up against the Arctic blizzard about to strike with its blinding snow and hundred-mile-an-hour winds.
“Lunchtime!” Gran-Dan called.
We left our igloo behind and hurried up to the dining room. Gran-Dan didn’t like to be kept waiting.
Lunch was tuna salad sandwiches and pickles and potato chips. I ate every bite on my plate so that Gran-Dan wouldn’t tell me for the fiftieth time how when he was a boy he always ate every bite on his plate. I noticed that my mom ate every bite, too, for a change. She looked better now that she had gotten dressed, in shorts and a cheery pink top.
“Did you get your igloo built?” Gran-Dan asked Carly.
“Cooper made it. It’s the best igloo in the whole world. I want to live in it forever! Can we sleep in it tonight? Can we?”
Gran-Dan didn’t answer. I couldn’t see any reason for him to object, but it looked like he was thinking about something else.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I just remembered something.”
He left the table and was gone for a long time. I wanted to get up and go back to our nice, cool igloo, but I knew we were supposed to wait where we were.
When he finally returned to the table, he had something in his hand.
“Carly,” he announced solemnly, “I have something to show you.” He held out a sheaf of yellowed papers held together by a rusted paper clip.
“What are they?” Carly asked.
Gran-Dan paused for effect before answering. “These are the deeds to my land in the Yukon that I’ve had since I was ten years old. Each one is for one square inch of land up there in the snowy wilds of Canada where Sergeant Preston and his huskies used to roam. They’re from a radio show back in the 1950s.”
“Are they really deeds to real land?” I asked. “How did you get them?”
“By eating Quaker oats. One deed came in each box. That’s all I wanted to do that winter, listen to Sergeant Preston on the radio and eat Quaker oats as fast as I could, so I could get another deed to another square inch.”
It was hard to imagine Gran-Dan as a boy, sprawled on the rug, listening to the radio, dreaming of faraway places.
My mom reached out her hand. “You never told me about them,” she said to Gran-Dan.
Gran-Dan handed the deeds to Mom. “I forgot all about them until now.”
“Can we have the deeds?” Carly begged. “Cooper and me?”
“How many are there?” Gran-Dan asked.
Carly took the deeds from Mom and counted them. “Eight.”
“That makes four for each of you.” I was surprised that he hadn’t just given them all to Carly, though I know she would have shared with me; Carly and I always share everything.
Carly counted out four deeds for me and four for herself. Leaving them behind on the dining room table, she jumped up. “Come see our igloo! Come see it!”
“Let’s just clear away our lunch things first,” Gran-Dan said.
Carly’s face fell.
“I’ll take care of cleaning up,” Mom offered.
I stayed behind to help while Gran-Dan followed Carly to the basement. To Carly, he’d probably praise the igloo to the skies; to me, he’d find some fault in how I had built it, or in the extra Styrofoam pieces I had left lying on the floor and forgotten to put away. I carried the plates into Gran-Dan’s big, tidy kitchen and set them on the counter by the sink. Gran-Dan didn’t have a dishwasher. He didn’t believe in dishwashers, either.
When I returned to the dining room for the glasses, Mom was lingering at the table, looking at Gran-Dan’s deeds.
“One square inch,” she said. “A whole miniature world. All there in a box of cereal.”
She handed my deeds to me. “Make sure you don’t lose them,” she said. “Though I know you won’t.”
That was the beginning of what was going to be Inchland. But I didn’t know it then.
Excerpted from One Square Inch by Claudia Mills.
Copyright © 2010 by Claudia Mills.
Published in 2010 by Farrar Straus Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.