In which we meet the Hardscrabbles, unearth a triceratops bone, and begin to like Lucia even more
There were three of them. Otto was the oldest, and the oddest. Then there was Lucia, who wished something interesting would happen. Last of all was Max, who always thought he knew better. They lived in a small town in England called Little Tunks. There is no Big Tunks. One Tunks was more than enough for everyone. It was the most uninteresting town imaginable, except for the fact that the Such Fun Chewing Gum factory was on its west end, so that the air almost always smelled of peppermint. When the wind blew just right you could think you had been sucked down a tube of toothpaste.
I was the one voted to tell this story because I read the most novels, so I know how a story should be told. Plus I’m very observant and have a nice way of putting things; that’s what my teacher Mr. Dupuis told me. I can’t tell you which Hardscrabble I am—Otto, Lucia, or Max—because I’ve sworn on pain of torture not to. They said it’s because the story belongs to all three of us, and I suppose they’re right, but it seems unfair since I’m doing all the work. No one can stop you from guessing though.
The story will begin on a sparkling, sun-drenched afternoon in July. I think that’s a good time to start because everything is so nice and pleasant at that time, with flowers blooming and birds singing and all that rubbish. You have to start nice and pleasant before you get to the more heart-thumping bits, in which the weather turns nasty and so do the people. And also, the story actually did start on a sparkling, sun-drenched afternoon in July, so I wouldn’t be lying.
On a sparkling, sun-drenched afternoon in July, when the flowers were blooming and the birds were singing, Otto and Lucia were walking home from school arguing about what they were going to do when they grew up.
“We’ll open up a tattoo parlour in Little Tunks,” Otto said.
“Well, that’s fine for you. You’ll be the one drawing skeletons and tigers on people’s bums,” said Lucia, who incidentally looked exactly like her name. If you don’t know what I mean, just picture long, thick, black hair that needs loads of shampoo to make a lather; a delicate, proud nose; and beneath two unapologetically thick eyebrows, dark eyes that were endlessly searching for something interesting to happen. If you think she sounds suspiciously heroine-like, be advised that she has flaws. She had a terrible sense of direction, fought quite a lot with Max, and was on the short side.
“I won’t tattoo bums,” Otto said staunchly.
“You would if someone paid you loads of money,” Lucia declared.
“Not even then,” he said.
“Well … you would if the Queen came in and asked to have her bum tattooed,” Lucia said, since she hated to lose an argument.
Otto and Lucia both silently contemplated this for a few moments.
“I might,” Otto admitted, “just to say that I did.”
Here’s what Otto looked like, because I know you’re going to wonder pretty soon: He was a tall, thin, slippery-jointed thirteen-year-old. His posture was appalling. His shoulders humped and his head drooped down, so that he always looked like he was up to no good. He had shiny, pale blond hair that always swung over his pale blue eyes. Wrapped twice around his neck was a long black cloth scarf embroidered with twisting oak leaves in silver thread. He wore the scarf all the time, in winter and summer. Even to bed. His front tooth was chipped, due to an incident in which he was up to no good.
The other very important thing you should know about Otto is that he didn’t speak. I know I’ve already written that Otto spoke to Lucia, and it’s not a lie really. He spoke with his hands, using a sign language that he and Lucia had devised long ago, after he suddenly stopped speaking at the age of eight. Their younger brother, Max, understood quite a bit of it, because he was fairly clever and extremely nosy; their father had tried very hard to decipher it but rarely could. The teachers never understood him at all but they didn’t make a fuss over it. Truth be told, they were a little bit afraid of Otto. Most people in Little Tunks were.
From here on in, when I write “Otto said” you’ll understand that he was signing the words with his hands. Lucia, on the other hand, usually spoke to him out loud. He could hear perfectly well, after all.
“And anyway,” Lucia said, frowning, “what am I supposed to do at the tattoo parlour?”
“You can console the people who are crying and mop up the blood,” Otto answered promptly.
“Oh, that’s appealing.” Lucia puffed out her nostrils. It was a lovely gesture of contempt that she used quite often. “And anyway, I don’t think there’s much blood involved if you do it properly.”
They travelled through the narrow, winding streets, passing the brick terrace houses, the town park with its small pond and its three bad-tempered swans, and the sweet shop, which was owned by the Pakistani man who gave you back your change in little coin towers, the biggest coins on the bottom. Occasionally, they walked by other kids, also on their way home from school. The kids nodded at Otto and Lucia warily, but none of them stopped to toss them a friendly word, or even a filthy one. As a rule, no one in Little Tunks meddled with the Hardscrabble children. This was 75 percent due to the suspicious disappearance of their mother several years before, 20 percent due to the fact that the people in Little Tunks thought that the Hardscrabbles were strange, and 5 percent due to the Hardscrabble children—the two eldest, at least—being happiest in each other’s company.
“Well, I say we buy a fully rigged ship and sail around the Pacific Rim. We’ll navigate by the Orion constellation, and we’ll search for people who’ve been shipwrecked on islands, then rescue them,” Lucia said. (I’m beginning to think that you are pronouncing Lucia’s name as though it were Lucy with an a at the end of it. That’s wrong. You pronounce it Lu-CHEE-a. Say it a few times out loud and you’ll forget about Lucy-a.)
“You won’t need to navigate by the Orion constellation,” Otto said. “You can use radar equipment.”
“Yes, but maybe I’ll choose to navigate by the Orion constellation.”
“And people generally don’t get shipwrecked on desert islands anymore,” Otto said.
“I know that,” Lucia said, her nostrils puffing again, although not very widely since she hadn’t really thought of that. “But back in the old days, ladies travelled on those ships sometimes. If they got shipwrecked on an island with everyone else, don’t you think they might eventually have children? And then their children might have children, and then there might be a whole pack of them by now, living on seaweed and mud, just waiting for someone to come rescue them. Imagine how excited they’d be to see our white sails fluttering on the horizon.” Lucia’s glittering black eyes were now fixed on the horizon of Little Tunks, which consisted of some grimy terrace-house roofs, the Such Fun Chewing Gum factory’s chimneys pumping out peppermint smoke, and a cow pasture beyond that. “After we rescued them, we’d be on all the telly news shows and they’d put up plaques about us on park benches.”
She glanced over at Otto. He’d shoved his hands in his pockets and looked markedly unimpressed. She frowned, considered, then added, “Of course, it’s likely that there’d be some strange deformities among the stranded people. Inbreeding being such a problem.”
Beneath his overgrown hair, his pale, interested eyes slid toward his sister. “What kind of deformities?”
“Oh, children with hair growing on their faces, people with twelve toes. Like that.”
Otto was an avid collector of the strange and unusual. In fact, he hoped one day to open a museum of abnormalities right in Little Tunks, but he needed to enlarge his collection first. Thus far, he owned three specimens: a two-headed cornsnake; a one-eyed frog; and a lobster with an extra claw on one side, all of which he’d purchased from a catalogue.
“Well,” Otto said, “that’s all right then. But I still think a tattoo parlour is better.”
Suddenly Otto stopped walking. His body stiffened and his hand reflexively yanked his scarf tighter around his neck, something he always did when he was nervous. Lucia looked at him questioningly, then followed his gaze across the street. A thin woman with a cap of thick grey hair was prodding at a small object on the sidewalk with a stick.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Lucia hissed. She grabbed Otto by the elbow and quickened their pace. But it was no use. Mrs. Carnival had spotted them.
“Hoo! Hoo, Hardscrabbles!” Mrs. Carnival called to them, waving her stick.
Ignoring her was no good, they knew. They had tried it before. She would hunt them down clear across town if need be.
Reluctantly, they crossed the road while Mrs. Carnival waited, tapping the stick against the pavement. Her eyes, which were the exact color of bananas when they go thoroughly rotten, fixed on them impatiently.
“Come on, don’t drag your feet, Hardscrabbles! Stand up straight, Otto, I’ve told you a hundred times not to walk like a baboon. You may act the part of the village idiot but there’s no need to walk like one!”
Lucia opened her mouth to shoot back an angry response, but Otto stopped her with a quick shake of his head. He was right, of course. It was no use arguing with Mrs. Carnival. She would always have the last word, and besides, they had to stay at her home several times a year. It wasn’t a good idea to get on her bad side.
As Lucia and Otto came close, Mrs. Carnival turned her attention back to the object on the ground.
“Get rid of this thing,” she demanded, nudging it distastefully with the tip of her stick. “I don’t want to touch it, and it’s spoiling the street.”
It was a robin, tiny and plump and lying horribly still. Otto knelt down next to it. Its thin eyelids were closed except for the tiniest slit, through which a still-bright dark eye gleamed.
Otto shook his hair to the side in order to see better, and with one finger he gently touched the bird’s small russet chest.
“Is it dead?” Lucia asked Otto.
He shook his head no.
“Well, it should be if it had any sense! Flew into my window, the nitwit,” Mrs. Carnival said. “What are you doing down there, Otto? I asked you to get rid of it, not groom it! Oh, get out of the way, I’ll kill it myself.” And she lifted her stick in order to bring the pointed end down on the little bird’s chest.
Swiftly, Otto slid his hand beneath the little bird and scooped it up before Mrs. Carnival could touch it. He wrapped his scarf around it gently and cradled it against his chest.
“Ridiculous boy,” Mrs. Carnival muttered, shaking her head. “Remember to wash that scarf afterwards,” she called to Otto as he and Lucia walked away. “That bird is certainly diseased. I won’t have you staying at my house if you catch something from it.”
“As though that’s punishment,” Lucia said, almost loud enough for Mrs. Carnival to hear. But not quite. Mrs. Carnival was the only person who was willing to take care of them when their father went on his trips abroad. The Hardscrabbles didn’t like her but they needed her. Or Dad felt they did anyway, though I’m sure they were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves.
Otto cupped his hand over the small lump under his scarf as he and Lucia passed through the heart of town and then turned up a lonely street whose broken pavement tilted this way and that. On either side of the road were a few houses in moderate states of disrepair. Their own house was at the very end of the street, a ramshackle butter yellow house with a wild-looking garden in the front. Ruffled pink and white roses spilled giddily every which way, blue lobelia carpeted the ground, and gangly lilies stretched up toward the sun, their lemon-colored petals unfurled. Arched over the brick path leading toward the house was a rickety arbour that was thatched with bright purple clematis.
A black-and-white cat named Esmeralda was sunning herself on the path, but when she saw Otto and Lucia approaching she popped up and bolted out of the garden and across the road. She wasn’t their cat anyway. She was only one of the many street cats that hung around their house. The cats came when their mother had still lived with them and they still kept coming after she was gone. Their mother didn’t believe in keeping animals, Dad told them, any more than she believed in keeping humans. Creatures stayed as long as they needed to stay, she had said, and when it was time for them to leave, you just had to tip your hat and wish them well.
Ironically, though, the cats never thought it was time to leave the Hardscrabble house. It was really as if they were hanging around waiting for Tess Hardscrabble to return. Consequently, as Lucia and Otto approached the house, they startled six other cats out of the depths of the garden. A seventh, a big fat tabby, had draped itself in front of the door and would not move, so they had to step over him.
Inside the hallway, Otto and Lucia dropped their schoolbags and headed directly to the kitchen, just as they always did, but they stopped short at the entrance. Sitting at the kitchen table was a chubby red-haired girl they’d never seen before. In front of her was a large bowl, into which their younger brother, Max, was scooping chocolate ice cream from the carton. He stopped when he saw Otto and Lucia, and his face grew a little pink.
“Who’s this?” Lucia demanded.
“Her name is Brenda. She’s new at school, moved here all the way from Loughborough, and doesn’t know a soul, so I thought wouldn’t it be a good thing for her to come over.” Max said this very quickly, and there was a pointed tone to his voice when he said that Brenda was new at school.
What followed was a long awkward silence, during which Otto slouched even more than usual and cradled the robin closer to his chest. Lucia flashed an irritated glance towards Max then turned her dark eyes on Brenda. Her expression was stern but kind.
“Did Max tell you that he has a time machine in the basement?” Lucia asked Brenda.
The girl shook her head while Max hastily plopped another scoop of ice cream in her bowl.
Excerpted from The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter.
Copyright © 2010 by Ellen Potter.
Published in 2010 by Feiwel and Friends.
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.
Ellen Potter is the author of books including Slob, Pish Posh, and Olivia Kidney. With Anne Mazer she is also the author of Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook. Potter grew up in a high-rise apartment building in New York City’s Upper West Side, where she exercised her early creativity by making up stories about the neighbors she saw on the elevator. When she was 11 years old, she realized all the best books were written for people her age, and so she decided to become a children’s book author. She studied creative writing at Binghamton University, and then worked many different jobs while continuing to write. She was a dog groomer, construction worker, art teacher, and waitress. She lives in upstate New York with her husband, son and a motley assortment of badly behaved animals.