First Lie: I’m Fine. FIRST LIE: I’M FINE.
Except for the chicken on my head.
I was pretty sure she hated me.
You know what? All I’d ever wanted was a simple life. Maybe some folks desired excitement and adventure. Maybe they wanted summers full of surprises and unnecessary relationships with animals. Not me. No, thank you.
Not everyone needed to be onstage, the way my dad and my sister, Sara, always seemed to crave. They could have that puddle of light.
But know who didn’t want the spotlight? Me, Raymond Crickett. I didn’t need excitement. My best friend, Trixy, was a magnet for all sorts of trouble. I was in it deep when she was around. I’d bet she’d get this chicken off my head and put it on her own in three seconds flat.
But Sara, Dad, and even Trixy were nineteen hundred miles away, and that was fine.
I had been sitting on the porch, contemplating the series of events that led to me being here in Winter’s Peak, when the chicken shot out of the woods. I thought maybe it wanted to be petted, so I had bent over. But no. This chicken wanted to be a hat. Now it was on my head.
The chicken was clucking. It was clucking!
Though having Trixy around in this specific moment would’ve been great for chicken removal purposes, she and I for sure needed this break from each other. She was my only real friend, and I couldn’t always say I liked her all that much. She was bossy and self-centered, and it was because of her that Dad’s bluegrass band had gotten tons of attention last fall. His Wayward Music Festival performance clip went viral due to Trixy and me busting onto the stage just beforehand.
That was partially why I was here. My grandparents saw that clip and invited Sara and me to spend a few weeks in the summer with them, right around the same time that Dad’s fancy new agent booked him a two-week tour of Texas in July.
Trixy was back home in Oklahoma, where I belonged.
And Sara? She was supposed to come with me. But then she went and got into a summer camp in Omaha with a performing arts studio, which apparently was more “important” and “possibly life changing” than a trip to dull old Winter’s Peak, Maine.
Why was I here? For real, who wanted to go to Maine?
No one, that’s who. The more I saw of this place, the more I knew no one would choose to give up precious school-free days here. And I’d only arrived three days ago! No one wanted to go to a place where the beaches looked like piles of rocks. No one wanted to stay with grandparents they didn’t rightly remember, since their daughter (my mom) up and left all of us six years earlier. Grandparents who didn’t want to be referred to by anything normal, such as Mammaw and Pappaw, like Dad’s folks, but instead said I could call them Gigi and Jack. I was rolling my eyes again. Chicken dug her talons in. I guessed maybe I moved my head too much.
“I’m sorry, Chicken.” What was wrong with me? I’d just apologized to a chicken.
Chicken baa’cked at me. I didn’t think she accepted my apology.
Oh, I didn’t want to be here—not on this porch, or in this state. But after Gigi called, Dad had a bunch of hushed conversations with her. And then Dad went and said I could use some independence. It was just a coincidence, he said, that he’d be on tour.
He said I was too used to bending like a sunflower toward Trixy. That I let her do everything from finishing my sentences to gobbling up my air. And just as I opened my trap to say that I speak for myself, Trixy popped out from behind a tree and said, “Yeah, Raymond Crickett, you need adventure in your life.”
Well, here I am, Trixy! Standing alone with a chicken on my head, thanks to you!
Oh no. The chicken was shimmying. Why would a chicken do that? Did that mean she was about to lay an egg?
I had reminded Trixy then that the last time she said we needed adventure, we ended up being chased by police officers onto a bluegrass festival stage. But that’s a whole other story. Dad had nodded at Trixy’s assessment and called Gigi and Jack right then and there to buy me a plane ticket. Wasn’t until later that I realized I never once said I wanted to go to Winter’s Peak. Yet here I was.
Either one spot of this chicken was very warm or there was in fact an egg on top of my head.
I was a bit sore at all three of them—Dad, Sara, and Trixy—to tell you the truth.
But it was fine. I was fine.
The warm spot wasn’t an egg.
It was much worse than an egg.
Eventually, Chicken hopped down from my head with a frightful thump of feathers. She landed so heavily I was tempted to make sure her creepy orange legs were okay, but if I bent down, I just knew she’d jump right back onto my head. The not-egg dripped down the side of my face and I yelped at how foul it smelled and felt.
Chicken twisted her neck at me, peering at me from one yellow eye, baa’cked as though I’d offended her, and then whipped around. Stretched out headfirst like an arrow, she sprinted off through the woods.
I watched her disappear into the trees with a relieved sigh, and then went into Gigi and Jack’s cottage.
“Hello, Raymond,” Gigi said without looking up from the giant puzzle she was putting together in what she called her “drawing room.” Gigi and Jack’s house was split down the middle with a staircase. It seemed to be a natural division for my grandparents, too.
Gigi got everything on the left side of the house, where all the walls were painted crisp white. Her drawing room had navy velvet couches, and a navy-and-white-striped wingback chair. A painting of a sailboat hung over the huge brick fireplace in the corner. Her puzzle table was pushed against the interior wall, and she perched in front of it, holding a puzzle piece in her hand. The windows cast the back of her head in shiny light, making her silvery hair shimmer. Behind the drawing room was the kitchen, with its miles of white cabinets and a scrubbed-clean round wooden table with a bowl of red apples that weren’t real.
Gigi spent most of every day cleaning and polishing all her bright white spaces, wearing rubber gloves up to her elbows and lugging a red bucket from room to room. Everything smelled like laundry detergent and bleach on that side.
The right side of the house was Jack’s. He slumped on an old brown rocking chair in the middle of the room he called his “den.” The walls were dark brown panels. The rug was composed of faded brown, beige, and black braids of fabric, with permanent dents from the legs of the rocking chair. He faced a television tuned to a news station where all the reporters were furious all the time, even though they looked like they’d just stepped out of a glitzy salon. The heavy curtains were drawn so there wasn’t a glare. The next room, he called the “study” and Gigi called the “library.” It had a huge leather sofa, wall-to-ceiling shelves of books about horrific battles, and a fireplace blackened with ash. It smelled like woodsmoke.
The bathroom, under the staircase, was gray.
Upstairs, Jack and Gigi’s bedroom was the whole left side of the house, with a little beige sitting room at the top that no one ever used. The whole right side had once belonged to my mother. I guess it still did, since it was where she had lived until she ran away to Nashville and met my dad. The door to her room was tightly shut.
Deciding where to go in the house felt like choosing a side in a silent war, so I spent a lot of time on the stairs or in Grand Pap’s room. That’s what they called my room, even though Grand Pap’s ashes were in an urn on a shelf in the library.
The room was tucked at the rear of the first floor. It looked like a shoebox that someone had tacked onto the back of the house, jutting out with half of it on Jack’s side and half on Gigi’s, the door to it in the very middle. It seemed the safest place to be.
Grand Pap had passed away about six months earlier, but Gigi had only boxed up most of his stuff when she knew I was coming. I sometimes thought that meant they might not have been totally sold on the idea of entertaining me that summer despite being the ones making the offer. After all, she never even cleared out the boxes. They lined the walls, stacked halfway to the windows. “He was a collector,” Gigi said when she showed me the room, and it sounded like an apology. “I wanted to clear it all out, but I’m just so busy keeping up with the rest of the house. And since he was Jack’s dad, he really ought to be the one to address it.”
The bed was one of those for old people where a little remote makes it go upright and down. It was like being in the cockpit of a memory-foam space jet, especially when I pushed all the buttons on the remote at once. I didn’t do that too often, though. Jack tended to clear his throat real loud when I did. I thought that might be his version of Knock it off.
Grand Pap’s room smelled like tobacco and baby powder. It was brownish gray, like Gigi and Jack had swirled their paints in one big vat to finish the room. “If you want,” Gigi had said when I arrived and followed her down the long hall toward the room, “we can put you upstairs next to us in your… in Abigail’s old room.”
Abigail was my mother.
I remember looking around at all those boxes in Grand Pap’s room and wondering whether it’d be worse to see Mom’s room blank or with its corners filled with boxes. “I like this room,” I had said. “It’s fine.”
Gigi nodded. “Abigail loved hanging out in here with her grand pap. She couldn’t get enough of his stories. I can still hear the way she’d laugh from the belly.”
I tried to remember what that sounded like, my mom doubled over with laughter. But I guess it had been too long. I could barely remember her voice, let alone her laugh. My face must’ve crumpled a little, because Gigi flushed. She patted my shoulder.
The best part about Grand Pap’s room was that it had its own bathroom. Yeah, it was just a shower the size of a closet, and there were lots and lots of metal handrails all over the place, but I’d never had my own bathroom before. I even decorated the counter with a seashell that looked a lot like a diseased gray foot. I found it while I was crawling along the boulders Gigi called a beach, the day after I arrived here.
Maybe thoughts of umbrellas and sandcastles come to mind when you think of a beach. That had been me once. But, no, it turned out that in Maine, beaches are rocks. Lots and lots of different-sized rocks. Not that it stopped some kids from having fun. There had been a few when I went, playing football next to where Gigi and I sat on a boulder. “Go see if you can meet some neighborhood kids!” she had said, like that was the easiest thing to do in the world.
“Hey, Gigi,” I said now as I stood in the foyer. I aimed to be like that chicken and run straightaway to the back of the house quick as could be, before Gigi looked up from her puzzle or Jack pulled his eyes away from the angry screen.
And I almost made it too. But then Gigi’s words froze me in place.
“I noticed a gaggle of boys riding their bikes downtown today,” she called out just as I passed by their respective rooms. “I told them my grandson was staying with me, and they graciously invited you to join them tomorrow. They say you’re to bring a towel, since they usually end up swimming in the lake or heading to the ocean.”
“Oh,” I said, pumping lots of regret into my voice. “That’s too bad, because I don’t have a bike, is all.”
“I know that, Raymond.” Gigi pressed a puzzle piece into place with a small click. “That’s what I told the nicest boy, Berto Ruiz. He’s staying with his grandmother this summer too. And he’s twelve, just a year older than you! Isn’t that just perfect?”
I didn’t see how that was perfect, but Gigi wasn’t awaiting a response. “Berto says you can borrow his old bike. It’s out by the barn. You’re to meet them tomorrow at one o’clock. He said they’ll be at Cobbler’s Hill then. How’s that suit?”
“It’s all arranged,” Gigi said, snapping in another piece. “Of course, you’re welcome to go meet up with them tonight if you’d like.”
“I, uh, I’m just going to take a shower.”
The squeak meant Gigi was pushing her rolling chair backward. “In the middle of the day?”
“Yeah,” I said, not turning around. My hands were clammy and my throat a little tight about these plans Gigi had made for me. Plans that most definitely would not suit me. “A chicken did its business on my head.”
I rushed down the hall and eased shut Grand Pap’s door, but the wood was thin so I heard Jack’s grumbly voice. “What’s that boy doing playing with birds?”
“Now, Jack,” Gigi said, her voice spreading out like a knife would smooth peanut butter. “You know he’s a bit backward. Leave him be.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard her describe me that way. Backward. I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t a compliment. Backward kids were the kind who were harassed by chickens. The kind of kids who needed their grandmas to arrange playdates when they’re eleven. The kind of kids who had never learned how to ride a bike or swim.