[If only] Bran would stop acting weird....Probably he had a perfectly reasonable explanation for everything. I just couldn't imagine what it would be.
When Britt's older brother, Bran, lands a summer job house-sitting for the Marquises, an elderly couple, it seems like a great opportunity. Britt and Bran have moved to Florida so their mother can finish college, and the house-sitting income will allow their mom to quit her job and take classes full-time. Having never lived in a real house before, Britt is thrilled. There's only one problem: Britt starts to suspect her family isn't supposed to be there. She's been noticing that Bran is acting weird and defensive -- he hides the Marquises' mail, won't let anyone touch the thermostat, and discourages Britt from meeting any of the neighbors. Determined to get to the bottom of things, Britt starts investigating and makes a startling discovery -- the Marquises aren't who Bran has led her and their mom to believe. So whose house are they staying in, and why has Bran brought them there? With unexpected twists and turns, award winner Margaret Peterson Haddix has again crafted a thriller that will grip readers until its stunning conclusion.
I knew it the first day he showed me the house. He was speeding ahead of me on his bike, while I struggled and sweated behind him, huffing and puffing because even after three months in Florida I still wasn't used to the heat. I didn't know how Bran could be either, but my brother seemed to do everything right, even if it meant not sweating in 90-degree heat, with 90-percent humidity. Then suddenly he slammed on his brakes.
"Wait -- ," he said, placing both feet firmly on the sidewalk.
My bike's an old one we got at a yard sale, and the brakes are a little iffy, so I practically ran into him as I screeched to a halt.
"What do you mean, 'Wait'?" I asked. "Is this it?"
I looked at the house beside us, a flat-roofed, concrete-block cube painted lime green. We'd lived worse places. Heck, we were living in a worse place now.
"No," Bran said. "It's a lot nicer than that. Up there. The yellow one." He inclined his head ever so slightly. I guessed he meant a sunshine-colored house in the next block, mostly hidden by palm trees. Trust Bran to be the only sixteen-year-old on the planet to still remember -- and obey -- those grade school lectures about it being rude to point.
"Call me crazy," I said, "but wouldn't it be a lot easier to see the place if we were, say, in front of it?"
My brother fixed me with a patient-Bran look. He's been giving me those looks, I think, since I was a baby and he was four and I would take his toys. Mom swears he never hit me, never grabbed them back; just looked disappointed and patiently tried to explain to me why I'd done something wrong. From anyone else, those looks would be maddening. But it's hard to get very mad at Bran.
Even when I was a baby, Mom says, he almost always talked me into giving his toys back.
Now he shook his head.
"Not yet. I have to make sure...," he said. He leaned forward, peering toward the house. I didn't have the slightest clue what he was making sure of, but after a few minutes he relaxed a little and said, "Okay, let's go."
We inched our bikes forward and crossed the street. The house looked better and better the closer we got to it. The yellow stucco seemed to gleam in the sunlight, and the palm fronds swayed gently against the windowpanes.
"Wow." I breathed. "I can't believe the Marquises are going to let us live here for free, all summer long."
Bran looked around like he was afraid someone would overhear me bragging and take away our great deal. But the street was deserted -- all the people who were used to living in Florida knew enough to stay out of the heat.
"For free?" he asked. "They're paying us, remember?"
There was a little edge to his voice. He was so proud of the arrangement he'd worked out, the miracle he'd wrought. House-sitting, it was called. The whole concept was new to me. I'd never heard of someone letting you live somewhere without expecting you to pay for it. But the Marquises were a retired couple who lived in Florida in the winter and New York in the summer, and they'd gotten worried about a rash of burglaries on empty houses. So they were paying Bran to stay here and take care of the house while they were away. And they were letting Mom and me live here, too. It was about the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to our family.
I remember the night Bran announced he'd gotten this house-sitting job. Mom and I just stared at him for maybe five minutes straight. We were eating dinner, and we practically stopped with the forkfuls of Hamburger Helper halfway to our mouths. But Bran kept talking about what he'd figured out, revealing each detail like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat.
"Mom, if we don't have to pay any rent, and if I'm working at the restaurant, you can go to school full-time this summer. And then -- "
"I could qualify for the scholarship this year," Mom said slowly, as if in a trance. The scholarship was just about all Mom had talked about since we'd moved to Florida. She'd been trying to finish college for longer than I've been alive, but there'd never been enough money for that. When she heard about the school down here offering a special scholarship for single mothers, she nearly flipped out. She said that they must have written the guidelines just for her -- except that she had to be a junior, and after thirteen years of trying, she only had enough credits to be a sophomore.
"See, Mom, it could all work out perfectly," Bran had finished excitedly.
But Mom shook her head. The trance was over.
"I can't let you do that," she'd said. "You're only sixteen. It's not fair to make you support your whole family. Not when I can be working, too."
"You wouldn't be making me," Bran said quietly. "I want to do this."
He sounded so dignified and noble that I felt a surge of pride. Bran would do anything to help Mom or me. I was really lucky to have a brother like that.
But Mom was still shaking her head.
"You need to save your money for your own college fund."
"But, Mom -- " Any other kid would have sounded whiny saying that. Not Bran. He sounded downright authoritative. "You've got to look at the big picture. You said yourself that that scholarship will pay more in living expenses than you can make as a waitress. So the sooner you get the scholarship, the more money we'll have as a family. And you know I'll find a way to pay for college."
Mom could have seen that as an insult -- Bran would find a way to pay for college, even if she hadn't. I've seen other mothers who would have flown off the handle at that: "Oh yeah? You think you're better than me? Just forget the whole thing!" Back in Pennsylvania, my friend Wendy's mother was the worst one in their whole house about slamming doors and stomping up the stairs. But my mom's not like that. She just tilted her head and gave Bran a sad little smile and said, "Okay. I won't rule out anything yet. Let's figure this out rationally." She pushed the dinner dishes aside, and they got out a pencil and paper and started calculating how much Bran could make in tips, what we'd save in rent, how much it'd cost to move again in the fall. I watched the numbers lining up on the paper, and even I could tell what was going to happen. The excitement in their voices was contagious. I grabbed Mom's hands and started dancing around the room with her, singing, "Mom's getting the scholarship! Mom's getting the scholarship!"
Laughing, Mom dropped my hands and declared, "Goodness. I wish everyone had as much confidence in me as you two do."
Mom says things like that -- goodness, good grief, even my gracious -- that make her sound about two billion years old. But she's only thirty-three, and looks probably ten years younger. She's got wavy blond hair and greenish eyes that almost glow when she's excited. Back in Pennsylvania the college boys were always hitting on her. I once heard Mom's friend Carlene say, "Honey, if I looked like you I'd be a model, not a mommy." Mom had just laughed. What she really wants to be is a doctor.
All that was running through my mind as Bran and I rolled our bikes toward the house.
"I'll show you the backyard first," Bran said.
We leaned our bikes against the side of the house and followed first the narrow driveway, then a short sidewalk that led around the corner. A small square of neatly mowed grass lay between a screened-in sunporch, a small shed, the driveway, and a chain-link fence that separated the Marquises' yard from their neighbors'.
"So this is where it all started, huh?" I kidded Bran. He'd gotten to know the Marquises in the first place because he'd offered to mow their lawn.
"Yes, I -- ," Bran started, then broke off as he whirled around to face the house. Someone was inside, rattling the doorknob of the back door. And then that someone stepped outside.
It was an old man. Later I'd wish that I'd looked at him more closely, that I'd studied his face carefully, memorized every detail. But at that moment, all I really noticed was that he was old.
"M-Mr. Marquis," Bran stammered. Bran never stammers. He almost choked on the last syllable of Mr. Marquis's name. "You scared me. I didn't see your car. I didn't know anyone was home. I thought you were leaving for New York yesterday. I -- I thought you were a burglar or something."
He didn't seem relieved that it was Mr. Marquis instead of a burglar. He kept looking back and forth between me and Mr. Marquis.
Mr. Marquis chuckled.
"You are conscientious, aren't you?" he asked. "I don't think the yard's grown much since you mowed on Thursday. Remember, overmowing can be as bad for a yard as ignoring it. So just follow the schedule I gave you. No more, no less. All right?"
"Yes, sir," Bran said. "I wasn't planning to mow today. I was just, uh, checking up on the yard. I know it's a constant battle to keep it alive in this salt air. Just like you told me."
Something was wrong. Usually Bran was great with grown-ups -- not just polite and respectful, like you're supposed to be, but actually comfortable talking to them. But now he was so shaken he hadn't even remembered to introduce me.
That bothered me. I wanted Mr. Marquis to know that I'd be conscientious living here too, that all of us intended to take good care of his property. I wanted him to know how much living here was going to mean to us.
"Excuse me," I said carefully. Unlike Bran, I am not usually all that comfortable talking to grown-ups. "I'm Bran's sister, Britt -- well, Brittany, really -- and -- "
"Oh, yes, this is my sister," Bran interrupted. "Sorry. Sis, could you go take our bikes back out to the front sidewalk and wait there? I just need to talk to Mr. Marquis about a few details. We'll be quick, I promise."
My face flamed red, suddenly as hot as the Florida sun. Here I was trying to be so polite and mature, and Bran had interrupted me. He'd been rude! And why? It was almost like he didn't trust me to talk to Mr. Marquis, didn't trust me to hear the details of his house-sitting job. What could be so secret? Shouldn't I know everything, since I was going to be living in the house too?
And when had Bran ever called me sis before?
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell Bran off, to totally let him have it. But then I saw Mr. Marquis looking at us. He had big bushy gray eyebrows -- I did notice those, at least -- and they were squinted together like he was puzzled.
What if he went from being puzzled to being angry, and then decided we couldn't live in his house for the summer after all?
"Okay," I said meekly, though it felt like my innards were boiling.
I obediently walked around the corner of the house, but I didn't move the bikes right away. I stood still, just out of Bran's sight, and listened.
"Sorry," Bran was apologizing again. "We didn't mean to bother you. We'll be leaving in just a minute. Didn't you feel well enough to travel yesterday?"
That sounded more like the Bran I knew, polite and considerate.
Mr. Marquis's reply was a dim rumble -- something about a freak spring snowstorm in Tennessee -- and then, a little louder, "But the Weather Channel says the ice has melted now, so we're leaving as soon as Mary gets back from the beauty parlor. Women! She already had her hair appointment made up North and was fretting so over having to cancel it. I told her to go ahead down here; we could wait another hour...."
Why didn't Bran want me to hear that?
I got scared that any minute now, Bran would come around the corner and catch me eavesdropping, so I wheeled his bike out to the sidewalk. When I was coming back for my bike, I heard Mr. Marquis saying, "And don't lose the key -- "
Wouldn't he want to make sure that Mom and I didn't lose our keys either?
"I won't, sir," Bran said. "Good-bye. Have a safe trip."
I ran my bike out toward the curb. A second later, Bran rounded the corner of the house and came up behind me.
"What was that all about?" I asked.
"Nothing," Bran muttered. "Come on. We need to get home now."
"But I haven't seen inside the house! Why'd we ride all the way over here if -- "
"Ssh," Bran said. Rude again. He still looked spooked, too. "We don't want to intrude. I didn't know they hadn't left yet. They're probably still packing."
"But wouldn't they be done packing if they were planning to leave yesterday?"
It wasn't like me to persist. But I was still steamed about being banished to the sidewalk.
"Brittany," Bran said, and his voice was like steel. "I said, come on."
I swung my right leg over my bike seat, but I didn't start pedaling. I sat there, balanced on my bike seat, trying to decide what to do. I still think about what might have happened if I'd ignored Bran, strutted up to the Marquises' front door, begged to be let in.
But I was used to doing what Bran told me. And something about the house had already been ruined for me because of the way Bran was acting. I really didn't want to see inside it that day, with Mr. Marquis watching us.
"Okay," I relented, and pushed off, launching my bike into the empty street.
Bran zoomed ahead of me, leading the way, as always. And only then did I notice: He was sweating now. Pedaling out to the house in 90-degree heat hadn't made him lose his cool, but standing there talking to Mr. Marquis had given him rings of sweat on his T-shirt, rivers of sweat down the back of his neck. I'd never seen him sweat so much in my entire life.
Later I would wonder which had made him sweat more -- talking to Mr. Marquis or being scared of Mr. Marquis talking to me?
Margaret Peterson Haddix is the author of many critically and popularly acclaimed YA and middle grade novels, including the Children of Exile series, The Missing series, the Under Their Skin series, and the Shadow Children series. A graduate of Miami University (of Ohio), she worked for several years as a reporter for The Indianapolis News. She also taught at the Danville (Illinois) Area Community College. She lives with her family in Columbus, Ohio. Visit her at HaddixBooks.com.
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