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Engines roaring, Frontier Airlines Flight 1001 barreled down the runway. Charlie Pennypacker gripped the armrests—he was finally going somewhere.
He’d spent years harassing his dad to take them on a trip. He’d lobbied for surfing the twenty-one-foot waves of Teahupo’o in Tahiti or bungee jumping into the Villarrica Volcano in Chile. Or how about rafting the rapids of the Amazon basin or hiking up Machu Picchu?
After he’d been laughed out of the living room over those ideas, he’d suggested hiking down the Grand Canyon or even camping in Yellowstone.
He’d finally been reduced to proposing an off-season weekend at a low-budget Jersey Shore motel.
But even the cheapest motel in New Jersey was too rich for Mr. Pennypacker’s blood. He grudgingly allowed cash to be peeled out of his tightfisted grip for absolute necessities, but his list of what was necessary was short and his ideas about what should be paid was low. As Mr. Pennypacker often said, “Throw perfectly good money at a vacation and what have you got? Just memories, which don’t increase in value, can’t be resold, and will fly right out of your head the minute you get dementia!”
On the occasions that cash had somehow been ripped out of Mr. Pennypacker’s hands, he was not a gracious loser. Months ago, Mrs. Pennypacker noticed Charlie had outgrown all his pants and bought him six new pairs. When Charlie got back from the mall, Mr. Pennypacker had eyed his legs like they were regular Benedict Arnolds and loudly wondered about exactly how many growth spurts were in the works.
To meet his son halfway in his outrageous demands for a vacation, Mr. Pennypacker had taken to staging them in the backyard. Backyard vacations were free, and no airline, bus line, restaurant, tour guide, hotel, or motel insisted on being paid.
The summer before, the Pennypackers had camped under their oak tree, imagining they were in the Maine woods. According to his dad, it was exactly like Maine, except without the ticks, the hunters who would accidentally shoot you dead, or the bears who would tear you apart if the hunters didn’t get you first.
But now the Pennypackers were on their way to an island-hopping adventure in the heart of the Caribbean. The real Caribbean, not a fake one in the backyard.
Charlie leaned his head against the plane’s window as Philadelphia’s skyline faded into the distance. Three weeks ago, his dad had come home proudly waving a five-thousand-dollar check—a bonus for helping his accounting firm open a new office. Mr. Pennypacker wouldn’t have waved that check around so enthusiastically if he’d known that his wife was secretly planning an off-property vacation.
Mrs. Pennypacker, a lawyer with mad skills at arguing her points, had her own ideas about money. She waged daring bidding wars on eBay, had her hair and nails done in a high-end salon, and tipped generously. Now, it turned out, she wanted to throw even more money away on a vacation.
Peggy Pennypacker sharpened all her lawyerly arrows and fired off the sort of dark threats that made Mr. Pennypacker shiver. And sometimes cry.
“Charles, I will now begin my closing argument on the consequences of not spending the money on a family vacation. From this day forward,” she said, dramatically pointing one finger toward the ceiling, “I will run a hot shower and not even be in it. I will just watch gallons of expensive hot water go down the drain.”
Charlie stood behind his dad and softly whispered, “Expensive water. Down drain.”
Mr. Pennypacker flinched. He was violently against drains and anything expensive disappearing down them.
Mrs. Pennypacker clasped her hands behind her back and strolled in front of the kitchen counter. “Further, the next time a Nigerian potentate emails that he would be gracious enough to transfer five million dollars to our bank account, I will say, ‘Get a pen, good sir, while I tell you all of our personal information.’ Naturally, our accounts will be drained in under an hour.”
“Accounts down drain, too,” Charlie whispered. He gently blew at his dad’s neck, hoping to create a shiver up his spine.
Mrs. Pennypacker noted with satisfaction that sweat droplets had erupted on her husband’s forehead. A dramatic courtroom silence settled over the kitchen. “At this very moment,” she said softly, “I am looking for matches to burn my special Pfeffernüsse cookie recipe, sent to me by my childhood Danish pen pal. If we vacation in the backyard one more time, it will go up in a puff of smoke. You shall notice a flame springing up shortly.”
“Pfeffernüsse,” Charlie whispered. “Puff of smoke.”
With the loss of Pfeffernüsse cookies on the horizon, Charlie’s dad had crumpled to the linoleum, thereby resting his case in a heap of thrifty defeat. The jury was in—the Pennypackers were going on vacation.
Once Mr. Pennypacker had picked himself up off the floor and eaten a handful of animal crackers to restore his blood sugar, he suddenly got enthusiastic about the idea of a real vacation. He insisted he would handle all the arrangements and swore it would be a first-rate holiday.
Charlie had been suspicious of this new devil-may-care attitude. He assumed his dad would come up with the cheapest road trip possible. He figured they’d hop on their bikes, have shepherd’s pie at the Irish pub, and pretend they were biking across the Emerald Isle. Or maybe they’d rope a pagoda to the top of the car, order shredded pork at the Wok This Way, and pretend they were exploring China’s Hunan Province.
Even when they went to get passports, Charlie hadn’t been convinced they would really go somewhere. He thought it might be some kind of ruse, like the time they had driven through the parking lot of Trop Cher, a five-star French restaurant, and then somehow ended up with chalupas at Taco Bell.
But then came the miracle. His dad told Olive they were booked on a Disney cruise. A person would have to be mad as a hatter to mess with six-year-old Olive Pennypacker when it came to Disney. Every day, Olive sat cross-legged in front of the television like a sentry guarding a castle, mesmerized by Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or Puppy Dog Pals or that adorable scamp of a bloodsucker, Vampirina. There might be other, stronger people in the house, but Olive would fight for the remote with the fearlessness and aggression of an enraged honey badger.
If Mr. Pennypacker had told the enraged honey badger that they were going on a Disney cruise, then it was true. They were actually going on a real vacation. And not just any vacation! A top-of-the-line, first-rate, all-you-could-eat, luxury, living-like-a-billionaire, childhood-fever-dream Caribbean cruise.
As the plane rose over the clouds, Charlie relaxed his grip on the armrests. The danger of Mr. Pennypacker changing his mind, turning the plane around, and demanding his money back had passed.
He glanced over at his sister. Olive’s new dress, as adorable as his mom claimed it was, did nothing to hide the black hole in her mouth caused by her missing front teeth. As soon as any of her baby teeth came loose, she ripped them out of her gums with gusto. Her tributes to the Tooth Fairy were frightening, and the last had ended with blood splatter on the living room rug. Charlie assumed that when she ran out of baby teeth, she’d start working on her permanent teeth. Since her mouth had no front gate, fine sprays of spit flew out when she talked. The woman across the aisle had made the mistake of telling Olive her name. (It was Marjorie.) Olive had been talking and spitting at Marjorie ever since.
“Cinderella will like me better than my friend Carrie,” Olive said, with a particularly generous spit. “Carrie is my best friend and she met Cinderella at Disney World, but Carrie is not as good as me. It’s not my fault that I’m better! Do you have a friend? Are you better than them?”
Charlie wondered if he should tell Olive to stop talking, but then he decided that was Marjorie’s problem. He leaned his head against the window and imagined cruising on a luxury ocean liner. During the day, he planned to swim in the Olympic-sized pool and take breaks by flying down a water- slide. He didn’t know which ship they were on, his dad said that was a surprise, but Charlie had high hopes that he would find himself climbing the steps to an AquaDuck—half water slide, half rollercoaster, and total madness.
After a full day of twists, turns, and stomach-churning drops, he would head to the food buffets. He would drink gallons of orange soda accompanied by shrimp, a seafood delicacy that had never crossed the threshold of the Pennypacker household. His dad said that one shrimp was affordable, but you had to eat at least six, and that’s where they got you on the price. (They featured prominently in Mr. Pennypacker’s theories—Charlie envisioned a cabal of old men sitting around a boardroom, dreaming up plots on how to ruin people’s lives by getting them, usually on the price.)
After exhausting himself on the AquaDuck, drinking unlimited soda, and eating expensive shrimp, Charlie could go back to school with something real to talk about. Not like last year when he’d described camping in the Maine woods and Gunter Hwang had said, “So now it’s the Maine woods in your backyard? I thought your backyard was supposed to be sunny Spain. Oh never mind, that was the summer before.”
He’d had to jump on Gunter and throw him to the ground in some kind of last-ditch effort to save his reputation. That had led to a formal apology delivered in the principal’s office, an essay titled “Why It’s Wrong to Tackle People,” and two weeks of detention.
Gunter Hwang, ex-best friend, lived next door to the Pennypackers. Every time Charlie’s dad tricked out the backyard for some imaginary trip, Gunter leaned out his bedroom window and gave Charlie’s dad the thumbs-up while scribbling notes and snapping photos to be shared on social media. Gunter liked to post Charlie’s backyard vacations next to his own trips overseas to visit his mom’s family in Germany or his dad’s family in South Korea. He made a point of strutting around in the T-shirts he bought, like I HEART BERLIN and SEOUL HAS SOUL and one especially annoying one that said MR. WORLDWIDE. In case Charlie didn’t get the message about all his stupid T-shirts, Gunter had once said to him: “The message is, I actually go places, and you vacation in the backyard.”
To be sure that Gunter knew he had actually gone somewhere, Charlie had left a note taped to the mailbox, printed out in a fancy font so it would look like an expensive announcement.
The Pennypacker family will be Disney cruising until the 27th in a stateroom on a luxury cruise ship that is over a thousand feet long and will carry hundreds of other extravagant passengers except for Gunter Hwang.
To be totally sure Gunter would see it, he’d run to the backyard picnic table and used Olive’s sidewalk chalk to write on it in large letters: CHECK THE MAILBOX.
Though he wrote that the Pennypackers would be vacationing in a stateroom, Charlie did not believe his dad would have splurged for that kind of luxury. Especially since Mr. Pennypacker had just told the flight attendant that if the family was thirsty they could drink water right out of the bathroom sink and let’s see how Frontier Airlines figures out how to charge him for it.
Charlie was actually a little concerned about how far his dad might have gone to save a few dollars. What if he’d made some kind of deal and they would stay in dank rooms next to the ship’s engines? He could already hear his dad saying, “So what? You can’t even see your room when you’re sleeping. The joke is on the clowns who paid for rooms they can’t even see!”
Still, Gunter Hwang would never know that Charlie had slept next to the engines. Gunter would see his stylish announcement taped to the mailbox, grab his phone, and look up Disney Cruise Line’s website. The first thing he’d see would be a picture of an elegant stateroom. Then Gunter, consumed with rage and envy, would throw his phone on the ground. Let Monsieur Hwang report that at school.
The Miami airport teemed with people racing up and down long hallways, all hurrying to a thousand different destinations. Charlie had guessed his family were the only people that vacationed in the backyard—suspicion confirmed.
They stood at the baggage carousel for ages, watching other people’s bags roll past them, while Olive cried, “Where is it? Where is Hello Kitty? Where?”
Finally, they got their bags, including the freakishly pink Hello Kitty, and made their way to the doors. A tall man, whose arms and legs were rail thin, but whose stomach stuck out so perfectly round that it looked like a set of twins were preparing to fight their way out, held up a sign that read: THE PENNYPACKERS, PARTY OF FOUR.
It was like they were celebrities.
Mr. Pennypacker waved. The man with the sign ambled over to them. “Hello, Pennypackers,” he said in a booming voice. “I’m Ignatius Wisner, your captain. Follow me, folks!”
The captain. The captain of the ship had come personally. This was what it was like to be a high roller, living large and roaming around the globe.
The doors swung open, and the heat hit Charlie like a wall of hot, thick soup. The Florida sunshine was blinding, and he could feel it burning the top of his head.
“Here we are. Hop in,” Captain Wisner said, slapping a navy-colored hat with a white brim on his head.
They stood in front of a black van with its doors open. Charlie was surprised that it didn’t have the Disney logo on it, but that it did have dents, peeling paint, a rearview mirror attached with duct tape, and a bumper tied on with rope. It looked like the kind of vehicle that somebody would report to the police if it was parked outside a school.
Text copyright © 2019 by Lisa Doan
Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Marta Kissi