MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
HOW IT BEGAN
It was the last day of school and everything was singing. The birds were peeping and trilling and cooing. The bugs were buzzing and humming and chirping. The leaves rustled in the trees, the seeds rattled in the grass, and twelve-year-old Rufus Takada Collins, walking home with nothing in his backpack but the sweatshirt he’d found at the bottom of his locker, sang to himself: Summer, summer, summer. Of course Rufus knew better than to actually sing out loud, because people already thought he was weird, and also, the song didn’t have much of a tune. But even if his lips weren’t moving, even if he managed, through sheer force of will, to stay completely silent, his heart was singing, his bones were singing, his skin, warm in the sunshine, was singing: Goodbye, sixth grade. Hello, summer, summer, summer.
Rufus did not hate school, he just hated who he was when he was there. Which was, basically, nobody. He was not brainy like his father or athletic like his mother, and while he liked talking to people when he had the opportunity, he never knew exactly how to get the conversation started. He had one friend, Xander, who had spent all of sixth grade trying—without much success—to get him interested in an obscure collectible-card game called Marshannyx. Most of the other kids at Galosh Middle School ignored Rufus. The few that didn’t found as many ways as possible to remind him of the three fatal errors he had made during his sixth-grade year.
Fatal Error Number One: In September, on a field trip to Crescent Cove, he had noticed an unusual shorebird and said—maybe a little too loudly—“That’s a masked booby!” Which might not have been Fatal if he hadn’t tried to explain how rare it was to see one on this side of the Pacific and if Aidan Renks hadn’t stared right at him and said in a high, too-enthusiastic voice, “I know! It’s crazy! I can’t believe I’m looking at one now!”
Fatal Error Number Two: In October, during recess, he had stopped in the middle of a basketball game because there was a salamander under the hoop. Which might not have been Fatal if he hadn’t then taken off his left shoe and put the salamander inside so it wouldn’t get squashed. And even that might not have been Fatal, except that Aidan Renks had yelled, “Oh my God, look! It’s a barefooted booby!” and suddenly the whole booby thing from September was back in play.
Fatal Error Number Three: In November, he forgot to clean out his pockets before coming to school, and when he sat down at his desk, a clump of unusual berries he’d collected in the woods had gotten squished and left a purplish-brown stain on the seat of his pants. Which might not have been Fatal if Tyler Zamboski, who sat behind him in Math, hadn’t yelled, “Barefooted poopy!” And at that moment, Rufus had understood that his best choice—his only choice—was to become invisible and stay that way.
But now it was June and the school year was over. The rains, which fell in Galosh with little interruption from October to May, were done. Summer days could be spent at Feylawn, the rambling family property across town where his grandpa Jack lived. Galosh was small as cities went, with not too many high-rises and quite a few parks. But Feylawn was better than a park. It had a forest, and a meadow, and an orchard, and a cold trout-filled creek. The days there were long and bright and aimless, just the way Rufus liked them, and there were seventy-five of them before school started again in the fall. Hello, summer, summer, summer!
As Rufus opened his front door, he squared his shoulders a little, tucking his summer song deeper into his chest. His mother, Emi, would have already left for her shift at the hospital. His father, Adam, would be sitting at the kitchen table scrolling through job listings on his laptop. His dad never meant to ruin Rufus’s mood, but lately he couldn’t seem to help it. His gloom was so huge and dark and cloudy that it seemed to suck everything into it, like a black hole.
But today his father wasn’t in the kitchen. He was in the hallway, waiting for Rufus.
“Grandpa Jack’s hurt,” he said. “We need to get to Feylawn.”
* * *
“I don’t understand,” Rufus said during the drive across town. “How did he break his arm?”
“He fell.” His dad ran a hand over the uncombed clumps of his wavy brown hair.
“But how did he fall?” Grandpa Jack wasn’t the falling type. Rufus had never seen him lose his footing, not even when jumping from stone to stone while crossing the creek at Feylawn.
“According to Mom, he stepped through some rotting floorboards in the barn.” His dad glanced over at Rufus and raised his eyebrows, as if to add italics to the statement. “And since phones don’t work up there, he had to drive himself to the emergency room. If Mom hadn’t showed up for her shift just as he was leaving the hospital, we might not even know.”
“What rotting floorboards?” Rufus asked. “I was just in the barn last week. I didn’t see any—”
“It’s Feylawn, Rufus. Don’t try to make sense of it.”
But Rufus wanted to make sense of it. He knew Feylawn and Grandpa Jack about as well as he knew anything in the world, and nothing his father was saying jibed with his understanding of either of them. He was about to ask his dad another question when he saw that they had just sped past the road to Feylawn.
“Dad,” he said. “That was the turn.”
His father slammed on the brakes and squinted through the windshield. “I can’t see it.”
“Back up—it’s behind us.”
The streets of Galosh had been laid out in an orderly grid. It had no cul-de-sacs, back alleys, roundabouts, or other streetscape surprises, and hardly any roads with curves. But for reasons no one could quite explain, the dirt road that led to Feylawn was almost impossible to find, even if you knew exactly where it was. It was on the edge of downtown, sandwiched between a parking lot and a burrito shop, yet it always faded from sight just as you approached it, as if swallowed by a sudden fog. Rufus, however, had a knack for finding it.
“Not yet,” he coached as his dad reversed down the street. “Not yet. Now.”
His father made an abrupt Hail Mary turn and their old blue Toyota plunged into a blur of green and brown. A moment later the road came into focus again, bordered by tall trees on either side. It meandered uphill and then suddenly ended. Grandpa Jack’s bottle-green pickup was parked in its usual spot, smack in the middle of the road, keys dangling in the ignition. No one outside of the family ever came this way, so there was no need to worry about thieves. The road dead-ended at a stand of seven oak trees. Beyond that, flanked by a meadow dappled with blue lupines and orange poppies, was Feylawn.
Grandpa Jack was sitting on the wraparound porch of the old blue-and-white farmhouse, looking out over his garden. He was a stocky man with a salt-and-pepper mustache, thick capable hands, and a shock of white hair topped by a khaki cap. He wore horn-rimmed spectacles held together at the nose by electrical tape, and his right arm was in a sling.
As soon as he saw Rufus and his dad, Grandpa Jack got to his feet and enfolded each in a one-armed hug. “Well, this is an unexpected pleasure!”
“Emi told me about the accident.” Rufus’s dad frowned at the sling. “I had to make sure you were okay. Since we can’t call.” He enunciated the last four words as if they had sharp edges that might cut his mouth if he said them too quickly.
“Is your arm really broken?” Rufus asked.
“Just a little.” Grandpa Jack sank back into his wooden rocking chair. “No need to make a big deal about it. Could have been worse. Could have been my head.”
“My point exactly,” Rufus’s father said. “I see you broke your glasses again, too.”
Grandpa Jack winked at Rufus. “I think the tape looks quite dashing,” he said. “Roguish, even.”
“Can I get you something?” Rufus asked. “Do you want tea?”
“An old man takes a seat in a rocking chair and next thing you know, people are trying to serve him tea.” Grandpa Jack leaned back and rested his feet on the porch railing. “Just have a seat and keep me company. I’ve got a jar of pills and a cooler of ice packs from the hospital. I’m feeling fine.”
“A cooler? Does that mean your refrigerator’s not working?” Rufus’s dad lowered himself onto the porch steps, his gangly knees splayed like a cricket’s. Rufus leaned against the railing. He wished his dad would stop seeing the dark side of everything.
“Power’s out at the moment,” Grandpa Jack admitted, “but it’ll come back on. Always does.”
“It’s no way to live, Pop.”
“It’s a fine way to live. I know you and your sister never liked it here, but you were at a contrary age when we moved in. Rufus and I, though, we appreciate the scenery.” He gestured at the view, which encompassed both the vegetable garden at his feet and the vast and varied landscape of greens beyond.
“You still haven’t tried the rope swing Grandpa Jack and I made,” Rufus said to his father. “You can see all of Feylawn, practically. It’s like flying.”
His father was still watching Grandpa Jack’s face. “I’d like to know what happened in the barn.”
“Funny story, actually,” Grandpa Jack said. “As you know, I’ve been trying to clean out the barn for lo these many years.”
“I’m going to help you again this summer,” Rufus interjected. “We can make another Museum of Interesting Things.”
Last year’s museum had included an old bowling pin, a pair of leather aviator goggles, a ceramic chicken, a pile of boxing magazines from the 1930s, and a brush for grooming horses.
“Museum of Useless Junk, you mean,” Rufus’s father said.
“Anyway,” Grandpa Jack went on. “This morning when I was poking around in there, I uncovered an old icebox—the kind that uses actual ice to keep food cold. Thought to myself: that might be useful, what with the electricity going on and off the way it does. But here’s the funny thing. When I went back to measure it to see if it would fit in the kitchen, I noticed a honking big hole in the floorboards.”
“And you fell in it?” The hair on Rufus’s arms prickled. Below the main floor of the barn was the cellar, where Grandpa Jack kept firewood. It was a long way down.
“’Course not,” Grandpa Jack said. “The hole I stepped in was the one I didn’t notice. Itty-bitty one, just big enough for my foot—if I hadn’t put out my hand to break my fall, it wouldn’t have been any problem at all.”
He gave a wheezing laugh, then stopped short when he saw Rufus’s dad glaring at him.
“It’s not funny, Pop.”
“Sure it is. Feylawn has moods, always has. She’s a bit cantankerous at the moment, but it’ll pass. Never liked that footstool anyway.”
He gestured at the charred chintz cushion of a three-legged footstool that normally sat in the living room.
“You had a fire?” Rufus’s father leaped up to examine it.
“Just a small one. Could have been worse. Could have burned something I was fond of.”
“Rufus,” his dad said. “Grandpa Jack and I need to talk. Why don’t you go take a look at that osprey nest you keep telling me about?”
“But I wanted to show it to you,” Rufus said. Back when his dad worked in the accounting department at the Buckett Brand Windshield Wiper Company, before the Great Gloom descended, he used to let Rufus show him the things he’d discovered at Feylawn—fox dens and swimming holes and the cluster of tall granite stones that Rufus called the Boulder Dude because if you squinted at them from just the right angle they looked kind of like a person.
“Maybe next time.” His father stood beside the scorched footstool, his long arms folded, his shoulders hunched. Rufus sighed. He’d been trying to show him the skunk-striped osprey chicks for weeks. Now they were almost ready to fledge.
“Speaking of the Museum of Interesting Things!” Grandpa Jack boomed suddenly. “I found something I wanted to give you, Rufus. It’s inside that icebox in the barn. What with all the excitement, I never went back to get it.”
“I’ll get it on my way to the nest,” Rufus said.
His father shut his eyes and exhaled slowly. “Do not. Go in. The barn,” he said to Rufus. “For Pete’s sake, Pop, what are you thinking?”
“Stop being such a worrywart,” Grandpa Jack said. “What are the chances that two of us fall in a hole on the very same day?”
“No barn, Rufus,” his father said. “Have I made myself clear?”
Rufus sighed. “Very.”
THE BARN AND THE BELL
Nothing seemed strange or out of place as Rufus walked along the path that led to the barn. Bees mumbled in the clover. Birds trilled from the wood. So what had Grandpa Jack meant when he said Feylawn was feeling cantankerous? It wasn’t the first time he’d talked about the old property as if it were alive, but Rufus had never understood what he meant by it. How could a place have a mood, other than maybe green, or windy, or wet? Feylawn was hard to find, but it wasn’t normally the kind of place where floorboard holes opened up of their own accord, no matter what Rufus’s father said.
Rufus wanted to see what those holes looked like. And while he was in the barn, he could grab whatever Grandpa Jack had found in the icebox. He’d be in and out of there long before his father was done lecturing Grandpa Jack. Having been on the receiving end of many of his father’s lectures lately, Rufus knew they could go on awhile.
The barn door hung by one hinge and had to be lifted before it would swing open. Rufus stood on the threshold, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light. Then he pushed the toe of his sneaker against the floorboards, testing their strength. They seemed solid enough. He took a hesitant step forward and then another, threading between the furniture stacked on either side of the doorway: dressers, desks, tables, a wardrobe, a curio cabinet, a coatrack, a rabbit hutch, and about a dozen different kinds of chairs, with and without seats. To his left were a motorcycle and the remains of a horse-drawn cart, and in the back of the barn were tools and equipment, cans of paint, a plow, a butter churn, skis and snowshoes, fishing rods, easels, old computers, and a couple of saddles. To Rufus’s right, behind the furniture, crates and boxes were piled in ten-foot stacks. The boxes were the usual sources of Interesting Stuff. You never knew what you’d find inside.
Rufus didn’t see the hole until he had tiptoed past the piled-up furniture. When he did, he stopped short and stared. The floorboards were shattered. Pieces of splintered wood were strewn around them, as if something had burst through from underneath. Rufus drew closer, stepping gingerly, and squatted beside the hole, which was bisected by the thick crossbeams of the ceiling below. A dank smell wafted up. He knew firewood was stacked down there—that’s where he and Grandpa Jack went in winter to get logs for the stove. But peering through the hole now, he couldn’t see anything at all—just shadows.
He stood up, heart pounding inexplicably, and looked around for the icebox. It wasn’t hard to find—a wooden cabinet with three metal doors; it had been dragged into the middle of the floor and left there. There was a small hole beside it.
The door of the largest compartment hung open. Inside was a dusty burlap sack. Rufus had just picked it up when he heard a scraping noise, like a sled being dragged over an icy snowbank. It came from the cellar.
He took a step backward, then whirled around, remembering the hole in the floor. Below him, something flapped like a flag in the wind. Then it slammed against the boards under his feet.
Heart now galloping in his chest, Rufus tightened his grip on the burlap sack and bolted for the door.
* * *
Once he was out in the sunshine, Rufus immediately felt foolish. So something had been moving down in the wood cellar—big deal. It was a possum or a raccoon or a wood rat. He’d tell Grandpa Jack about it later, when his dad wasn’t around. They’d trap it, set it free out in the woods. Nothing to get spooked about.
He sat down in the grass and opened the burlap sack.
Inside was an old-fashioned locomotive, bright green, and much bigger than any toy steam engine he’d ever seen. It was about the size of a loaf of sandwich bread, and it shimmered in the sunlight. Painted in gold capitals on its side were the words ROVING TREES RAILWAY, LTD.
Most of the things Grandpa Jack found in the barn were old and rusted, but this didn’t even look dusty. The inside of the cab contained an impressive array of miniature brass gauges and levers, and it had a boiler that seemed as if it might actually open if Rufus could fit his fingers around its little handle. Mounted on the top of the engine was a shiny bell the size of a gumball. Rufus flicked it with his finger.
The peal rippled around him, far too loud for something so tiny. A dizzying pins-and-needles sensation jittered over his skin. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling but it was a thrilling one, like when you jump off a high dive and know both that you never want to do it again and that you want to do it again immediately. The world seemed to turn silver and for a moment Rufus felt silver, too, every particle in his body buzzing as if electrified.
Then the chime died away. Once again Rufus was exactly as he had been—a twelve-year-old boy sitting in the grass beside an old barn.
Well, maybe not exactly as he had been. He studied the steam engine, a little dazed. Something was different. But what?
Rufus had always known himself to be a very ordinary person. He got Bs and Cs in school, played passable but not particularly inspired trumpet in the school band, and was neither awful nor amazing at soccer and basketball. He didn’t whip up gourmet desserts in his spare time or win spelling bees or rack up high video game scores or know any impressive skateboard tricks. But just then, he somehow felt extraordinary. He got to his feet and jumped in place to see if he’d acquired the ability to fly or leap over the barn in a single bound. He scanned the trees to see if he suddenly had X-ray vision. As far as he could tell, he still didn’t have any superpowers, or even any above-average powers.
All the same, something felt different.
He sat down in the grass again and turned the steam engine over in his hands, amazed at how light it was given its size. A Steller’s jay landed in the grass beside him and stared at him with its black crest cocked forward inquisitively.
“Hello there,” Rufus said. “Do you like my train?” Carefully, he returned the train to the burlap sack. Time to get back to the house. His dad never wanted to stay at Feylawn for very long.
The jay was still watching him. It hopped along in the grass, its indigo chest puffed out. Then, with a harsh squawk, it grabbed the burlap sack in its beak and spread its wings.
“Hey,” Rufus cried as the bird flapped into the air. But while the Steller’s jay was clearly an avian of unusual ambition, it seemed unprepared for the weight of a burlap sack containing a large toy locomotive. For a brief time it rose and sank and rose again, like an airplane caught in a squall. Then bird and bag parted company. The jay flew over the trees, screeching in frustration. The bag tumbled down into the grass.
As it hit the ground, the steam engine’s bell rang out a second time, loud and bright and shivery-silver. Rufus felt the chime strike him like a wave. As it did, a cry rent the air, keening and anguished, like a heart being broken. It was the single saddest sound Rufus had ever heard.
He picked up the bag and drew out the engine. Miraculously, it wasn’t even dented.
“Time to go!”
Rufus looked up to see his dad striding toward him on his long legs. He eyed the train in Rufus’s hands. “Where’d that come from?”
“I found it in the barn,” Rufus said, still reeling from the strangeness of the shivery bell, the heartbroken cry, the oddly behaving bird.
His father’s face darkened. “The barn?”
It was only then that Rufus realized what he’d said.
Copyright © 2020 by Dashka Slater