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Rex Zero, The Great Pretender
The Sinister Sign Post
I'm sitting on the top step outside my house, my feet firmly planted about a foot apart, my hands out straight in front of me holding tight to the handle of the towline, just the way Buster showed me. Except there isn't really a towline. It's my flashlight. Buster is going to teach me how to water-ski and I want to get in all the practice I can on dry land.
We're going up to his grandmother's cottage in Québec. James is coming, too. Four whole days at Lac Philippe: canoeing, fishing, messing about in boats. It's a dream come true! Last summer when James went up to Buster's, I wished so hard that I'd get invited up there that my wish tank must have filled right to the top and sloshed over into my dream tank. I dreamed of what it would be like and now I'm going to find out firsthand.
I get up, walk down the path, and look west on Clemow Avenue. I can see the Keatons' station wagon in their driveway about ten houses up on the other side of the street. It's a brand-new navy blue 1963 Oldsmobile Dynamic 88. They're filling it up with food and stuff for the cottage. There's Clem now, hefting a big yellow cooler. He's seventeen, Buster's older brother. The cooler looks heavy. It's probably full of Coke and root beer and cream soda and ice cream sandwiches. He goes back inside the house. They've been loading for the last half hour. It's a big car.
I go back and sit on the porch. I'm supposed to wait here. I offered to help but Mr. Keaton has a "system"—that's what he called it. He's a mathematician, so he's probably got it worked out to the last inch. I tighten the strings around my sleeping bag. I open my suitcase for the nth time and check on everything: marshmallows, paper bag full of Mum's peanut butter cookies, large box of Smarties, new Hardy Boys: The Sinister Sign Post. It's the fifteenth; I'm reading them in order. There are clothes, too, but not many. I plan to eat, sleep, and swim in my bathing suit!
I walk down to the street again to check on how the packing is going and I see my sister Annie Oakley on her bike tearing around the corner at Lyon Street going about a hundred miles an hour. She's up on her feet, bent low and flying, like she's in a race for her life. She swerves up onto the sidewalk and barrels toward me, full tilt. I jump back onto the lawn as she veers up the path.
"Here," she says, and throws me a baseball, which I drop because I wasn't expecting it. Then she's back on her bike and hightailing it up our driveway. I hear the clatter of her bike as she drops it, then the back door slam.
It's a hardball, scuffed but pretty new. I look up, and, sure enough, two boys are biking toward me. I can guess whose ball it is. I hide it behind my back, just before the first of them screeches to a stop in front of me. He's Annie's age, about fourteen, with Popeye biceps. He's breathing hard. He stares up at the house.
"Is it this one?" he says to the other guy, who's wearing a Milwaukee Braves cap. Popeye's face is red. Pooped red. Angry red.
Milwaukee nods. And then they look straight at me, their front wheels inching up onto the lawn. I step backward.
"You see a girl come this way?" says Popeye.
I shake my head, which is easy to do because I never really think of Annie as a girl.
"Curly brown hair, scratched-up knees," says Popeye.
"And some stolen property," growls Milwaukee. Then he leans out over his handlebars and looks me hard in the eye. "Hey, you're her brother," he says. I've never seen him before; how did he know that? Do I tell him I didn't choose to be her brother?
"Where is she?" says Popeye.
He's giving me the evil eye, all right, and any second now he's going to wonder why my hands are behind my back. Then what? I imagine my arms in casts—how hard it would be to water-ski. So I show Popeye the ball. He grabs it from me.
"There she is," says Milwaukee. He's pointing up toward the second floor of the house. I turn to look, catch a glint of sun on glasses behind a lace curtain.
"No, that's a different one," I say. Letitia is three years older than Annie. She's probably deciding which of these guys she'd like to marry.
"You tell Annie something," says Popeye, shoving the ball in his bike bag. "Tell her this is the last straw. You got it? We catch her and she's dead."
"Even if she stays out of our way all summer, she's still dead," says Milwaukee. "Soon as she gets back to school. Bam!"
"Damn right," says Popeye. "She should be locked up."
I nod. I've often thought the same thing.
"Come on," snarls Milwaukee. "Let's get out of here."
"You make sure you tell her, kid," says Popeye.
"I promise," I say. "Sorry about the ball."
Then they're gone. And about two seconds later, the front door opens and Annie steps out onto the porch with a cherry Popsicle in her hand and a cherry grin.
"They're going to kill you," I say. "Why'd you steal their ball?"
"Because Dwayne kicked me."
"You were playing baseball with them?"
"Are you kidding? It was last fall. Dwayne Fontaine." She makes his name sound like a plumbing problem. She takes a vicious bite of her Popsicle. "He said it was a mistake," she says, through the cold lump in her mouth. "But I know he did it on purpose." She glowers at the memory. "And Bobby Rinaldo hit that ball at me today when he saw me ride by. Hit it over the fence—right at me!"
"That's called a home run."
"Hah!" she says. "It was deliberate."
I roll my eyes. "Sheesh, Annie."
"Just because I put a cow's eye in his locker, last year."
I stare at her in disbelief. I almost ask what Bobby did to deserve a cow's eye in his locker, but I don't bother.
"A cow's eye?"
"We were dissecting them in biology. I took a couple extra."
That's my sister. Always planning ahead.
"What are you going to do?" I ask. "They're going to kill you."
"They'll never catch me."
"They said they'll get you at school."
"Yeah, well good thing we're moving," she says. And then immediately her face clouds over. "Oops."
"What did you say?"
"Forget it," she says. "I was…aw, just forget it." She turns back toward the house and I run after her, catch her by her shirttail in the front hall as she's about to head upstairs.
"What do you mean, moving? We've only been here a year."
"Keep your voice down," she hisses. "We're not supposed to know."
I keep my voice down but it's all shaky. "Where?"
"Last time was three thousand miles, so not far could mean anything."
"Keep your shirt on, Rex. We're just moving across town somewhere."
I don't get to finish because right then a car honks in front of the house. Three loud beeps. I look out the window. It's the Keatons.
"Have a great time," says Annie, waving her Popsicle. Then she dashes upstairs leaving drips like blood on every step.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright © 2010 by Tim Wynne-Jones
All rights reserved
First published by Groundwood Books Limited, Canada