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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Game of Fox & Squirrels

Jenn Reese

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

CHAPTER ONE


SAMANTHA LITTLEFIELD SAT alone in the back seat of the car for the whole ride from the airport. Her suitcase and backpack were in the trunk, which meant she didn’t have her books, her comics, her notebook and pens. What was even left? Sam hugged the thin fabric of her shirt and stared out the window. This wasn’t how she should be spending the week of her eleventh birthday. A bear sighting might cheer her up. Or a moose. But only trees blurred by, tall sentinels on both sides of the road as far as she could see. How would she ever sneak past them when it was time to leave?

In the front of the car, Aunt Vicky asked Sam’s older sister, Caitlin, another question. Aunt Vicky was a large woman, but her voice was small. A moth voice, fluttering and easy to miss unless you leaned in, listened harder. Sam leaned away instead.

She pressed her forehead to the window glass. It was cooler here than back home in Los Angeles, where the temperature had been in the 90s for months. Oregon was supposed to have “more moderate summers.” That’s what their caseworker—Mrs. Washington—had said, like it was some big selling point. Mrs. Washington had wanted Sam to be excited about getting on the plane, had wanted Sam to stop thinking about leaving her parents. Caitlin had played along. Caitlin always played along. That sounds wonderful, Mrs. Washington! I’m sure we’ll love it.

But Sam liked the heat. She’d never known anything else. She already missed it.

The tree-guards along the side of the road laughed, their branchy shoulders rustling. Oh, they were arrogant, those trees. Thinking they were so high and mighty just because they were, well, literally high and mighty.

Aunt Vicky turned off the main road. The car grumbled and juddered along a narrow dirt path. A blue-green house emerged around the next bend, and with it a fenced yard containing a miniature house painted to match the big one.

“Chickens!” Caitlin exclaimed from the front seat.

Sam leaned forward, eagerly scanning the yard. Sure enough, a cluster of mottled white-and-black birds bobbed and strutted in the grass. Chickens! And the tiny house was a chicken coop!

“We have six chickens,” Aunt Vicky said. “They give us our eggs. You can help gather them. If you want.”

Sam did not know what was involved with gathering eggs, but even so, she did want. The only time she’d ever touched a chicken was at a petting zoo. Its feathers had been so soft, its eyes so surprisingly fierce in its tiny head. Sam could have petted that chicken forever, but Caitlin had been eager to see the horse. Sam glanced at her sister now, hoping Caitlin’s chicken excitement was mostly real.

“Gathering eggs sounds cool!” Caitlin said, and Sam almost cheered. Aunt Vicky’s smile brightened immediately.

Sam wished she shared Caitlin’s skill at talking to adults. It seemed like something you were born with, like blond hair or the ability to touch your nose with your tongue. Caitlin had gotten all the dealing-with-adults skills and Sam had gotten … what? A few freckles, maybe. Some molars prone to cavities. It hardly seemed fair.

The car rolled to a stop. Caitlin fumbled with her car door, but Sam didn’t move. She had no interest in getting out, in setting foot in Oregon. She’d rather just watch the chickens. One bird was larger than the rest and seemed to know it. Maybe she was a great chicken warrior, the One Chosen Chicken, destined to lead all the other chickens into an epic battle of good versus—

“That big one is Lady Louise. She’s a bully, but she lays the best eggs,” Aunt Vicky said, unbuckling her seat belt and twisting to see Sam. Aunt Vicky only looked a little like Sam’s dad, despite them being siblings. Her skin was the same shade of sandy white, but she didn’t wear glasses and her hair was brown instead of blond. Brown like Sam’s. There was something different about her eyes, too, but Sam dropped her gaze before she could figure out what it was.

“Do you … like chickens?” Aunt Vicky asked her.

Yes yes yes.

Sam shrugged. It was the fastest way to get someone to stop looking at her.

Caitlin hopped out of the car. “It’s so beautiful here! The air smells so clean.” She raised her good arm and twirled around. And just like that, all eyes were on Caitlin again. Sometimes not even Sam could tell when her sister was doing it on purpose, drawing all the attention. She was grateful for it regardless.

Sam quietly extracted herself from the back seat and stood in the gravel driveway. She took a deep breath, trying to smell what Caitlin smelled, trying to feel what Caitlin felt. It didn’t usually work, but she had to admit there was something different about the air here. A taste. A flavor. She wasn’t sure if she liked it.

An envelope fell out of her pocket. Sam swooped it up quickly, once again admiring the horse and rainbow her friend BriAnn had drawn on the front with bright colored pencils. She was such a great artist. Inside, BriAnn had detailed every single minute of her family’s trip to Oklahoma for her cousin’s wedding, including a sketch of the bride’s flowery dress and her cousin’s tuxedo, complete with arrows and commentary. Sam knew that as soon as BriAnn got back to Los Angeles, she would want to know why Sam wasn’t around.

Maybe Sam would say she went to Hawaii with her family. A last-minute trip before school started in two weeks. It certainly sounded more believable than the truth.

The front door of the house flapped open, and a lumberjack appeared. Well, a tall, wiry woman dressed like a lumberjack, wearing jeans and a red flannel shirt even though it was summer. Her hair was short and spiky and black with a tiny bit of gray at her temples. She was smiling as she headed straight for the trunk and the bags Aunt Vicky was unloading.

“Let me get those,” the woman said. “How was the drive?”

“Fine,” Aunt Vicky said, and handed Sam’s backpack to the woman. The woman casually slung it over her shoulder as if it didn’t contain Sam’s most treasured possessions and then touched Aunt Vicky’s arm. A look passed between them so fast they probably thought no one saw. But Sam noticed. She bet Caitlin did, too. Were they upset? Had Sam already done something wrong? She shrank against the side of the car, trying to stay out of the way.

“Can I help carry anything?” Caitlin asked. “Oh, wait. I forgot.” She hefted her broken arm as if she had, until this moment, forgotten that it was broken. That was always how Caitlin handled these situations, by making herself bigger even as Sam disappeared.

“No, sweetie, I’ve got it all,” the woman said.

Who was this person who was taking all their things and who hadn’t even been introduced? Aunt Vicky stood by the open trunk, not moving, her eyebrows knit together.

The woman noticed that Aunt Vicky was in a daze. “I’m Hannah Zhang,” she said to Caitlin and Sam. “You can call me Hannah. I’m your aunt’s wife. Come on in. I made lemonade and there’s at least one box of cookies. They might be stale, but they’re still cookies, am I right?”

Mrs. Washington had told them Aunt Vicky was married, and somehow Sam had forgotten. Had forgotten that she’d be staying with two new people, not just one. So many things had happened in the past few days that even big things had fallen through the cracks.

“Wow, lemonade and cookies!” Caitlin said. “I’m sure we’re going to love it here.”

This seemed to shake Aunt Vicky from her stupor. She closed the trunk and walked to the house, her feet barely making any noise on the gravel. “Come on, girls, I’ll show you to your rooms, and you can settle in. If you want.”

Hannah and Aunt Vicky and Caitlin disappeared inside, one by one. Sam stayed by the car, wanting to avoid the chaos that was sure to unfold in the house: the questions, the offers of food, the general awkwardness of standing in a strange place surrounded by strange people. Caitlin would settle things, figure out the rules, and then it would be safer. Quieter. More manageable.

Instead, Sam watched the chickens pecking at the grass. She listened to the trees laughing. She breathed in the strange, different air.

Oregon.


Text copyright © 2020 by Jenn Reese

Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Jessica Roux