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Chapter One

“Move, butt-wipe.”

    That’s Kyle, my older brother, trying to shove me out of the way with the door of the U-Haul so he can get out. Normally, I’d fight back with some name calling of my own, but I’m paralyzed with disgust as I stand before the ugliest house I’ve ever seen. And there’s so much of it too. Three stories—four if you count the attic—of peeling paint, dangling shutters, and boarded-up windows. A forest of weeds taller than me has burgeoned from the cracks in the front walkway, and I wonder if anyone thought to pack a machete.

    Kyle manages to knock me aside with the door and exits the truck. He towers a foot over me. More than our six-year difference should allow if you ask me. It’s not that I’m jealous (much), it’s that I’m almost thirteen already. Shouldn’t I be taller by now?

    He unties my magician’s cape, and it falls off, hitting the ground before I realize what’s happening.

    “Kyle!” It’s real satin and not easy to keep clean. I snatch it up, wipe it off, and put it back on.

    Dad jumps out of the driver’s side and inhales deeply as he steps between Kyle and me. He puts his arms around us like we’re all in this together even though I had nothing to do with it. With a beaming smile, he says, “Does this house have character or what?”

    “What,” Kyle and I say at the same time.

    Dad bounds up the wobbly steps of the porch and disappears inside. I fear for his life, but Kyle follows him in so I figure there's safety in numbers.

    Resigned to having no vote in my own life, I try to coax Watson out of the front seat. He’s my basset hound that I’ve had for five years and three houses, not including this one. He didn’t do anything to deserve this, but no one gets to choose their family and he’s stuck with us.

    “C’mon, Watson. You live here too.”

    Watson scuttles back in protest. “Right. Why should you listen to me? I’m only the guy who picks up your poop.”

    He stares at me, steadfast, but I’m not in the mood to argue over who’s boss. I half drag, half lift the bundle of fur and slobber off the seat and deposit him on the ground. “You’re welcome.”

    Watson sticks to me like Velcro now as I go to the back of the truck and raise the cargo door. Cardboard boxes identified by the Sharpie labeling system take up most of the trailer. Our beds take up the rest. As far as our other furniture, Dad leaves that to the professionals. Hopefully, they won’t be a week late like the last time we moved. I hop in, but Watson can’t make the jump and watches from outside with his paws on the bumper.

    I climb over the boxes, ignoring the “fragile” or “handle with care” warnings because Dad put something similar on every box, regardless of its contents. Wedged between “utensils” and “home movies” is what I’m looking for: my favorite skateboard. I pry it loose and hop out of the truck.

    Skateboard under my arm and Watson on my heels, I trudge up the steps. The front door has glass panels on top, but you’d never know from the street—that’s how dirty they are.

    I swing the door wide open, and a repulsive smell like sweaty toe jam hits me, hits me hard. My insides revolt, threatening to unleash two Twinkies and a bag of Twizzlers projectile-style, but I’m able to stop the mutiny. Closing off that part of my esophagus that leads to the back door of my nose, I become a mouth breather so I can enter without puking.

    I stay by the front door and take it all in. The main floor is huge. Like mansion-huge. If it wasn’t a dump, I’d think we were rich, but even the cobwebs have cobwebs. To my right, against the wall, a staircase leads up to the second and third floors. Off the landing, or “foyer” as Dad calls these things, a living room goes on forever until it becomes the dining room where a brass chandelier hangs from a rusty chain over nothing, which is good since most of the links are coming apart.

    With no furniture, curtains, or rugs, I’m afraid to guess what the stench is from. At least Dad's removing boards from some of the broken windows to allow a cleansing breeze in. And on the bright side, the wood floors have nicks and scratches all over so Watson won’t have to worry about ruining them (like he worries about anything other than food, walks, and licking his privates).

    I sail off the landing on my board, pulling a sweet 360, and Dad gives me one of his disapproving looks.

    “Monty, what did I say about skateboarding in the house?”

    “I thought that was only when we lived in nice houses.”

    Kyle laughs. “Burn!”

    “Monty—” Dad starts with his sympathetic posture, but I cut him off.

    “What? It’s not like I’m gonna trash the floors. Look at ’em.”

    He sighs, and I know I hurt his feelings, but I can’t take another one of his chats. I wish people would stop writing books telling parents how to talk to their kids.

    “Let’s get the boxes,” he says.

    Grumbling, I turn to exit and find myself in the face of a wonky-eyed old man. Agh. I stumble back. The man bypasses me, unfazed, and pulls Dad in for a kiss—wet, sloshy contact—left cheek, right cheek, left cheek. Kyle glances over with his best yikes! look, and Watson growls but from the safety of the dining room.

    “Robert!” the ancient says. “Robert, Robbie, Rob.” He actually tears up. “Doctor Robert Hyde. Look at you!” He pulls Dad in for another kiss, but Dad extricates himself with a smile. Still, the guy stays nose to nose with him.

    “It’s good to see you, Doctor Petrovic,” Dad says.

    So this is Dad’s new boss. His old college professor. Dr. Petrovic. He looks more like a mad scientist with his nest of stringy hair, long bushy beard, stained lab coat, and army boots.

    “We are close, Robert. Very, very close.”

    I'll say. They’d be married in some states.

    “You had a good trip? You’re rested? You’ll be in class tomorrow? Will you be in class tomorrow, Robert? I don’t have all day. Answer me.”

    “Yes. I’ll be there.”

    The doctor lets out a sigh that smells like pastrami, and for the second time in one day, I find myself fighting vomit convulsions—not a good omen—but a woman’s voice sends everything back down.

    “Hi, Robert.”

    It’s the way she said it. Hi, Robert. Like she’s his girlfriend or something. Hi, Robert, tee hee. Sickening.

    Disheveled and harried, same as the doctor, she’s also wearing a lab coat with stains on it. Her hair’s in a ponytail, except for a few curls that look like they’re trying to escape. But she’s pretty. Really pretty for someone as old as Dad. I look over to him, and he’s all goo-goo eyed.

    “Ashanta,” he says with the same chumminess she used, and throws his arms around her in a warm hug.

    My turn to glance over at Kyle, but he grins this time. My best recourse is to roll my eyes. I’m agitated, and I don’t even know why.

    “What're you doing here?” Dad asks. 

    “Didn’t Doctor Petrovic tell you? I’m his associate professor.”

    The doctor yanks her with him as he makes for the exit like a bank robber. “See you in class tomorrow, Robbie-Bobbie-Boo. You said so.”

    They’re out the door in a flash but not before Ashanta looks over her shoulder at Dad. He waves with a giggle. A giggle! From a grown man.

    “Who’s that?” I get right to the point. Arms crossed, resting on the tail of my board with the nose up, just to show how serious I am.

    “That’s my new boss, Doctor Petrovic,” Dad says.

    I glare at him, reminding him I’m not the jock in the family.

    “Oh, you mean her? Just an old college friend.”

    “With benefits?” Kyle asks.

    “Don’t be crude,” Dad says, then turns to me. “Say, why don’t you take a tour of the university with Kyle later? Maybe you’ll go to my old alma mater too.”

    Nice deflection. “As if.”

    Kyle stomps on the nose of my board, throwing me off. “You know, you have to actually go outside to make friends, Monty. The house doesn’t come with them.”

    “Whatever.” I pop my board up, tucking it under my arm. Because I’m cool like that.

    “Whatever,” Kyle mocks, reminding me I’m not cool like that.

    “Quit it,” I retort.

    “Quit it,” he says.

    “Shut up.”

    “Shut up.”



    “Kyle . . .” Dad says, too little too late. I’m already out the door.

    “What? Got him out of the house, didn’t I?” Kyle says. I hear them through the broken windows.

    “Monty doesn’t adjust as well as you do. You’re supposed to help him.”

    “Dad, helping Monty is a full-time job.”

    Nice. I jump onto my board, grab my helmet from the back of the U-Haul, and skate off. I hate this place. I hate it even more than the last one.

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