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Chapter One

And…We’re here! Boringville, USA!

Hours of mind-numbing forest stop abruptly at the edge of my Grandma’s town. Back-to-school propaganda is painted on the building’s storefronts, and from the look of it, all done by the same artist. That’s probably the case. The way Mom talks about growing up here, this town wouldn’t know fun if it fell from the sky and set up a carnival.

For the record, it’s not even close to school time. It’s the first week of August, and last I checked, that is still considered summer break. But adults are eager to get rid of us older kids. I’m not Mom’s chubby-cheeked little boy anymore—just another bored thirteen-year-old lurking around the kitchen for cookies and brownies between video games.

Turrets on the town’s courthouse distract me, that is until Mom slams on the brakes. She lays on the horn and shakes a fist at the driver of the ancient pickup truck coasting through a stop sign. His wrinkled hand waves out the window and gives her the did I do that grin. I know from experience what’s going to happen next.

“Who taught you to drive, halfwit!” Mom yells.

Her fingers grip the steering wheel like it was the man’s neck. She turns to me, rubbing my flat top hair. “I apologize for my outburst, Hudson. Oblivious people are everywhere these days.”

A shy smile is all I’m offering my Mom’s distraught glance. Anything more, and she’d tell me the story once again of how the car slid over an ice patch to the highway guardrail, killing her best friend. Even after three years, she still phrases it that way—‘best friend.’ Mom thinks if she says ‘your dad’ when talking about the accident that I would fall into a heaping mass of depression. But what did she know about me? Her work always came before spending time with me.

“Thank you for volunteering to stay with Grandma for the remainder of the summer. Since Grandpa has gone missing, her health has only deteriorated. You have been an immeasurable help to me.”

“Like I had a choice.”

A man riding a girl’s bike alongside the impossibly slow traffic is making better time than us. His long gray hair flips in time with the faded pink streamers on the handlebars, distracting me from thinking about Grandpa and how he vanished a few months after Dad’s accident.

Our old, boxy car passes the speed limit sign at the other edge of town. I don’t think she sees the speed limit has increased because cars pull around us and glare at Mom as they cut her off and blast down the highway.

“Safety trumps social pressure,” Mom reminds me for the hundredth time.

Her hand flicks on the blinker, and the car slows even more, driving half on the road and half on the grass. Cars stalled in a muddy ditch encourage others to pay more attention to the road.

A break in the trees leads to a small dirt road that is our exit. Rocks plink inside the metal wheel hub as the car drags along the pot-holed road. Tall trees line the driveway to Grandma’s house. Tiny pink flowers float around in the air like confetti from the slowly dying trees.

I lean toward the side mirror on the car and search the road behind us. I might be a little car sick, but I think we just passed a boat anchor. Maybe it’s just a dead bush. They seem to be everywhere.

My head jerks toward Mom. “Did you see that?”

“What are you referring to, dear?”

“I thought I saw a giant chain, like the kind on cruise ships.”

Mom points to the road ahead. I fall back into my seat. An old wooden ship sits just beyond the clearing with regular house windows and a flag pole holding a green and blue flag at half-mast. Most older folks kept a cherub fountain in their yards, but my Grandma had an entire moat circling her ship-house thing. Yes, an actual trench with murky water.

Rocks squish deeper into the wet driveway when the car pulls into the dirt circle drive. I lean my head against the glass. “Is that a gangplank to the front door?”

“Your dad and I had planned to spend the summer here and show you around, but then the accident happened, and work has been so busy. I apologize for not bringing you here sooner.”

“Grandma’s visited enough for me to know she’s strange. But I never expected she lived in a ship-boat thing.”

“She certainly marches to her own drum. Most clever people do!” Mom slides from the car and stretches when my super short Grandma appears in the doorway. No kidding, she’s shorter than Tiny Jake from my lunch table.

“Rosa!” Grandma screeches and hobbles down the gangplank, snatching Mom around the shoulders.

I won’t lie. Seeing Mom squirm under Grandma’s grip feels like payback for all the times she embarrasses me with my own report card. No one likes a goody-goody homework finisher. At least no one under the age of twenty.

“Hudson? Look how much you’ve grown! Such a handsome young man. So much like your father!” Grandma rested her fist on her hips. “Come inside, you two. I got a pitcher of sun-brewed tea waiting for us.”

Grandma hooks her arm around Mom’s, and they walk the plank through the arched front door. The wooden ramp is worn along the sides and has a dip straight down the middle like pirates trudged this plank for hundreds of years.

What am I walking into? I brace myself for the skeletons and black candles melting over Victorian candle holders I expect to see. Man, was I wrong! Furniture is pushed against the walls of this piratey house and is every shade of puke green known to man. No joke. Walls, couches, lampshades—my stomach is queasy just standing in it.

Rows of glass cats line the window sills. Sunlight reflects off them and forms rainbows on the greenish brownish rug. I try to imagine superhero cats with laser beam eyes, but the chill of an icy hand has me jumping three feet over a lumpy footstool that liked to kill me. The frigid hands help me stand, then pinch my cheeks.

“Your room is up the stairs,” Grandma says. “First door on the left. Since you’ll be staying awhile, I gave you the best room. Why don’t you settle in while your mother and I talk?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I say with a formalness usually reserved for teachers. If I’m right, Grandma is a witch that lures kids in with candy and turns them into cat statues! What other reason could explain the lack of cat litter odor?

Short wooden steps make a sharp turn to the second floor. I lean my head to the handle on the wall but still can’t see past the landing. My sneaker steps to the animal skin rug stuck to the stairs. I’d no desire to feel the bristly hair on my feet, so I make a mental note to always wear my shoes. I trek up the creaking steps with a tight grip on the handrail.

Ten too many cat paintings hang in the hallway leading to the first door on the left. I kick the door, and it creaks open. I won’t lie. I’m terrified! Dark blue walls and the brightest popsicle orange blanket I’d ever seen are upstaged by the row of telescopes pointing out the window.

I drop my backpack to the floor and fall onto the knitted-looking comforter. My eyes grow heavy as I think about being in my own bed. I love my bed. It’s older than my Mom and has a deep dip in the middle—like a protective nest. This one seems okay but has that jumped on lumpiness.

But this is no time for snoozing. A beautiful voice sings from somewhere in the room and piques my curiosity.

“Hello,” I say. “Anyone there?”

The angel-like voice carries on.

Mom took advantage of the long car ride here, telling me about the pipes running through the walls that work like phones. How she and her cousins spent every summer on the ship, using them to pass secrets after bedtime. I search behind the headboard and the small kids’ desk, thinking they might be the source of the voice, but there isn’t one. Too bad.

I poke my head back into the hallway. Nothing but cat paintings. The voice sings louder. I freak out a little because the voice is so clear now, as if it’s coming from my head. No doubt remains—Grandma put a hex on me!

At the end of the hallway is a canvas stretching from the floor to the ceiling. The striped cat in the painting has bright yellow eyes that change from dull to sparkling within seconds. I rub my eyes and walk closer. The voice sings louder with each step.

My pits drip like a faucet to my cotton shirt. Bedrooms on either side of the painting also look catified. Suddenly the singing stops, and all I hear is the whistling of the air-conditioning vent.

“Hudson…” the voice sings from behind me.

“Mom? Grandma?”

A giant orange cat darts from the bedroom doorway and hisses. My feet spin to face the angry beast. Our staring contest ends when it lunges for me faster than any creature I’d ever seen, ramming my knees and throwing me to the wood edge of the painting. The livid cat flicks its tail at me and continues down the hallway.

Leaning on the canvas to stand, I find the painting is attached to a door. A mustiness, like those old books in the resource section of my school library, races through my nostrils and kickstarts my runny nose.

The flashlight on my phone is all I need right now. A cobwebbed set of stairs is behind the door. All the horror movies I’ve ever seen are racing through my mind. But there has to be a reason for the stairs, right? Grandma probably does her knitting up here. I’m sure this is the reason.

My trembling feet beg me to turn around and live another day, but the door at the top of the steps has me thinking. If it doesn’t open, I can just leave. No problem, so I give it a weak push, and it springs open like every horror movie ever. My breathing stills.

Rolls of old paper lean against wooden crates that butt up to a drafting table. A small set of dusty tools dangle from hooks. The only one I recognize is the A-shaped gadget that holds a pencil and draws circles. Oh, and a ruler.

Dark corners and creaking floorboards of the old ship keep their grip on my fear. A map is rolled out on the desk and held down with four rocks from the driveway. Just looking at the small print and the shaky lines of the hand-drawn map gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Nope! I focus my flashlight on the floor behind me. My bad decisions got me into this creepy room, and I refuse to go any further.

But the singing returns to my brain and seems to drag me back to the table. The inked sections of the map shimmer just like the eyes of the cat in the painting. Something like the tip of a holiday sparkler is racing across the paper like an invisible hand drawing a dotted line through the ocean and stopping on an unnamed island on the map.

The more I follow it with my index finger and concentrate on its path, the louder the voice sings in my head—reverbing in my brain. Visions of cats dance along the desk’s surface. My vision fades, and my arms go limp, like slipping into a dream. But I fight to break the spell because that trail mix I ate in the car is inching up my windpipe.

A firm grip on my arm rips the eerie feeling from my core.

Grandma grabs my head with both hands. Her stare avoids my eyes but manages to bore a hole straight through my forehead. “You of all people shouldn’t be in here!”