From three-time Edgar Award–winning author Willo Davis Roberts comes the “instantly compelling” (Kirkus Reviews) classic mystery, originally published as Buddy Is a Stupid Name for a Girl, about a young girl who unravels her family’s deepest, darkest secrets.
All Buddy ever wanted was a normal family. But with her mother dead, her father missing, and her brother on the road searching for him, Buddy has a hard time believing it will ever happen. Instead she’s living with relatives she hardly knows who resent her for reasons she can’t figure out. They think everything about her is strange, especially her name.
Despite all this, Buddy clings to the hope that her father is out there, somewhere, and that her brother will find him so they can be a family again. Until then will Buddy find a way to accept her new life and figure out the mystery behind her relatives’ disapproving stares?
The Old House Chapter One She had always liked the landlord, Mr. Beaman. Until today. Buddy watched his mouth as he talked, and she hated him.
“If your dad don’t show up,” he said, “you know, in a reasonable period of time, I can call Washington Social Services for you. They know what to do about kids who don’t have anywhere to go.”
Buddy didn’t have to look at her brother to see that he shared her feelings about that. Being put in a foster home, or a shelter? There wasn’t even a shelter, as far as she knew, except in the big cities like Tacoma or Seattle, away. And she was sure Dad wouldn’t want them to resort to anything like that.
Mr. Beaman must have read their rejection in their faces. He switched tactics. “You kids got relatives. Idaho, ain’t it? Or Montana, someplace like that. Go to them. That’s the thing to do.”
Beside her, Bart stood stiff and frozen in shock. The same shock Buddy was feeling, only her brother didn’t speak.
“We can’t go to Montana,” Buddy exclaimed. “They don’t even write to us, didn’t write much even before Mama died.”
Mr. Beaman licked his lips and looked miserable. “Still, they’re family. You’re just kids. They’ll look after you. See, the thing is . . . you’re two months behind on the rent now. And . . . well, you know I lost my job, too, when the mill closed. Same as your dad. I need the rent money. And . . . I got a family wants to rent the house. They got cash, first month and a deposit. I . . . told ’em they could move in Friday, first of the month.”
Bart looked as if he were frozen. His lips barely moved. “I don’t think . . . it’s not legal to just throw us out with no notice.”
“Well, you know and I know you haven’t paid me any rent for almost three months. That’s notice enough to be legal, I reckon. I need the money myself. I have to take this while I got the chance.”
“But you told my dad—”
“He said he’d get money to me before this. I can’t wait any longer,” Mr. Beaman said with determination, even though he was looking somewhat guilty. “You’re gonna have to move, anyway, right, if the only job he could find is out of town? So you’re gonna have to get out of the house before I lose these renters.”
Buddy couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “But we can’t go to Haysville,” she told him, glancing at her brother in the hope he’d back her up. “We have to wait until Dad comes back!”
The man licked his lips again. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I already told ’em. Monday, I said.”
She felt as if she were drowning, suffocating. Bart made a strangling sound, and finally spoke in a voice that wasn’t like his at all. “We couldn’t take all our stuff with us. Not in a car.”
“No, no, I realize that. You can store it in the garage. I told the new people you wouldn’t be able to clear that out yet. You don’t own any of the furniture, so just pack the rest of it. Get some boxes at the Stop and Shop. They always have boxes.”
And then he was gone, letting the door slam behind him, down the front steps to his car. Buddy glared after him through the sting of tears. “What’re we going to do?” she demanded.
Bart rubbed a hand across his mouth. “Get out, I guess.”
“But Dad won’t know where to find us when he comes back!”
“We only got relatives in one town. He’d call them if he couldn’t find us here. But we don’t have to go yet. We . . . we could manage in the car for a day or two, couldn’t we? Park near the bus station. It’s open all night. We could use the bathroom there, just for a couple of days. Watch for Dad, if he comes in on the bus.”
“Sleep in the car? Like we’re homeless?” Her voice squeaked.
Bart looked her straight in the face. “Buddy, we are homeless. Until Dad comes back.”
She cried then. How could anybody live in a car? No bathroom, no kitchen, no room to stretch out to sleep? How would they cook? How would they stay clean? How could they go to school?
Bart was watching her with hurting eyes. “It wouldn’t be for long,” he said. “At least Dad left the car. We won’t be on the street.”
“Can’t we consult a lawyer? I don’t care what he said, it can’t be legal to just put us out on the street!”
“I don’t think it is, but how would we pay a lawyer? If we could afford one, we’d have paid the rent. And he’s right about our having to move pretty soon, anyway. Dad said we probably wouldn’t be able to stay here if he had to work out of Lewiston.”
Buddy was terrified. But there didn’t seem to be any choices to speak of. The next day they didn’t go to school. Instead, Bart brought home a carload of boxes, and they started packing everything they’d have to move out of the rented house.
She kept on drizzling all through the job. Tears ran down her cheeks, and she wiped them on the sleeve of her sweatshirt. Her nose ran, too. The tissues had already been packed somewhere, so she used toilet paper to wipe her nose, but eventually she opened the box she’d packed the Kleenex in and kept it out. She figured they’d better have it in the car.
A car doesn’t hold much. Pillows, they decided, and a couple of blankets apiece. Food that wouldn’t spoil without refrigeration and didn’t need to be cooked.
Buddy looked drearily at her brother, who was putting books into a carton and sealing it. “What about clothes?” she asked.
“Keep it simple. Jeans and shirts, a jacket in case it’s cold. Stuff that doesn’t have to be hung up. Things you can wear more than once without washing. Socks and underwear. If we have to, we can wash those out in the rest room at the bus station.”
“What about this?” she asked as she picked up Mama’s photo album. “In with the books? It has the only pictures of her except for that big one Dad has on his nightstand. Maybe we ought to keep it with us.”
Bart’s expression didn’t change. It was closed, cold, keeping in the hurt. “We don’t have room for it, Buddy. We can’t take anything in the car we don’t absolutely have to have.”
She couldn’t bring herself to put it in with the books. She sank down on the floor, Indian fashion, and opened the big album flat on her legs. “Look. There’s Mom when she was my age. With Aunt Cassie and Aunt Addie.”
Bart didn’t answer. He closed that box and pulled over another one.
Buddy leafed through the snapshots. Mama and Dad before they were married. Aunt Adelaide when she graduated from high school, with her hair in stiff curls, thin and wearing a smile. And her wedding picture, when she married Uncle Ed, who died. They all went to his funeral when Buddy was about six. Mama didn’t cry, but she hugged Aunt Addie.
She flipped through the pages, stirring up memories. Some of the older pictures were of people she didn’t know, or at least didn’t remember. But she could pick out Aunt Cassie. She was shorter than Addie, and rounder, with a pretty, laughing face. There was one of her with Mama, their arms around each other, making silly faces at the camera.
And a formal picture, taken by a professional photographer, of Grandpa Dolan. He had died before Buddy was even born, so she didn’t remember him. But she remembered Grandpa Harry. The picture of him showed an old man, tall and thin and elegant in a white suit, leaning slightly on a cane. He was really their great-grandpa, and he’d been very old when she’d seen him last. He had owned the Ostrom Appliance and Hardware Store in Haysville, and he always had butterscotch drops wrapped in cellophane in his pockets for visiting kids.
Buddy turned a page and saw snapshots of Bart and then herself as babies and later as toddlers. She’d been fat then, and so had Bart.
Suddenly the album was jerked out of her hands. “Come on, Buddy, we’ve got to get this done,” Bart said, and jammed it into the box of books he was working on.
They packed dishes and bedding and towels. They packed Dad’s clothes, and labeled all the cartons so they could find things in a hurry when Dad wanted them. He’d only taken a small bag with him.
He’d grinned at them and said, “I’ll be home in a week, two weeks at the most, with a paycheck. Maybe I can talk them into giving me an advance, so I can get some money to you sooner than that. You kids’ll be okay for that long. We’ll go out and celebrate. Steaks, maybe.”
“Or pizza.” Buddy had offered a counter suggestion, and he’d laughed and hugged her.
“Whatever you want, little Buddy. You mind what Bart says, now. No squabbling, okay?”
And he’d gotten into the car with Rich Painter, to drive over to Lewiston, where they’d both gotten jobs. They felt good about it, because he’d only be gone a short time, and it was a relief that someone had hired him after the mill shut down and practically everybody in town got laid off. There wouldn’t be any more work here at home, and they’d probably have to move, but that was okay, as long as they were together. It was lucky Dad had had truck driving experience, even though he hadn’t liked being away from home so much, which was why he’d quit to go into the mill. That way he could be home every night even if it was hard, monotonous work.
Only that had been well over a week ago, almost two weeks, and there had been no word from Dad. No money order, no postcard, no phone call. Nothing.
Buddy closed the lid on another box and tried to stop sniveling. She didn’t want to make it any harder on Bart than it already was.
They lugged all the boxes out to the garage, and Buddy prayed Dad would return soon and find them another place to live.
They left the house after they’d fixed a last meal—canned tamales and peaches—on Thursday night. It was a good thing Bart had his driver’s license, so nobody could stop them from taking the car through town.
They had trouble finding a parking spot near the bus station at first, so they pulled in a couple of blocks down. There was a theater across the street, and Buddy suggested maybe they should go to the movie until the traffic cleared out and they could get closer to the bus station.
“I don’t think we’d better,” Bart said soberly. “Dad gave me enough money to last until he came home, but he’s late. We don’t know how long what I have left will have to last. I can’t get at his bank account, and I don’t think there’s much in it, anyway. You brought a book, didn’t you, Buddy? We’d better just sit and read until it gets dark.”
Buddy tried, but she couldn’t concentrate. She opened a box of crackers, and they shared them. After a while traffic thinned out, and they drove by the station again. This time Bart found a spot just half a block down.
They arranged their pillows and blankets as comfortably as they could and tried to settle down and sleep. It wasn’t late, but it had been an exhausting day, especially emotionally. For Bart’s sake, Buddy tried not to cry out loud.
She didn’t successfully muffle her sobs, though, because he reached over the back of the seat and squeezed her shoulder comfortingly. “It’ll be okay,” he assured her. “This won’t last for long.”
When you cry, your nose gets plugged up and you can’t breathe well enough to sleep lying down. Buddy thought longingly of her bed—her rented bed, she remembered, no longer hers—and squirmed around trying to get more comfortable. Would it have been different if they’d had their own furniture, the things they’d had before Mama died? When they moved that last time, after she was gone, their father hadn’t seemed to want to keep anything that reminded him she wasn’t there. So they had sold what they had and rented the furnished house. Had that been a mistake?
A police car went by, siren screaming, as she was trying to say her prayers. The neon lights of a bar across the street blinked off and on, making reflections on the metallic door handle. A stray cat meowed piteously, setting off a fresh gush of tears. I understand how you feel, kitty, she told it silently. Nowhere to go, not knowing where your next meal is coming from.
About that time Buddy realized that she had to stop feeling sorry for herself. She could almost hear Mama’s voice. “Having a little pity-party, are we, Buddy?”
Defensively, she thought, Well, who’s more entitled to one? But that made her feel guilty. She did know where her next meal was coming from. They still had some groceries left, in a box in the trunk. They could eat tuna, and pork and beans, and peaches right out of the cans. For a few days yet. Dad would surely be back by then. And Bart wasn’t whining and feeling sorry for himself.
In the backseat her brother shifted position, trying to arrange his tall frame on the too-short seat.
“Bart?” Buddy murmured. “What are we going to do if Dad doesn’t come back really soon?”
“I don’t know,” Bart said. “Don’t worry about it, Buddy. I’ll think of something.”
She finally fell asleep, wondering if her back and neck would be broken before morning.
It must have been several hours later when she woke in a panic. Someone was trying to open the door on the sidewalk side of the car.
Buddy reared up, gasping in alarm, and saw the face pressed against the window. A man with a big nose stared in at her, his bad skin tinted by the light from the neon sign across the street. She struggled to a sitting position, drawing as far away from him as she could get.
Behind her, Bart reared up also and rapped sharply on his own window. “Get out of here! Leave us alone!” he commanded, and the face retreated. “It’s just a drunk,” he said. “The doors are locked. He can’t get in.”
Buddy watched the man wander away, unable to walk steadily. He had frightened Buddy badly, and she resented his peering in at them. But a part of her recognized that he, too, was without a home. “We can’t keep parking here,” she said, her voice shaking.
“No,” Bart agreed, leaning back into his pillow. He twisted around and held his watch up so he could read it in the reddish light. “It’s only an hour or so until daylight. Go back to sleep, Buddy. We’re safe enough as long as we don’t unlock the doors.”
She didn’t feel safe. She wouldn’t feel safe again until Dad came back, and they were living in a house again.
As soon as it was light, they went into the bus station. They didn’t need to get dressed, because they’d slept in their clothes, but they had to use the rest rooms. Nobody paid any attention or seemed to care if they washed their faces there and brushed their teeth.
Back in the car, Buddy was too depressed to ask her brother any questions. He waited until they’d eaten a crackers and peanut butter breakfast, washed down with canned juice, before he told her what he’d decided.
“While we were in the station I asked about the price of a ticket to Haysville.” When she opened her mouth to protest, he put his hand over it. “No, don’t argue, Buddy. I thought about it all night long, and we don’t have any choice. I can’t keep you out of school, and I can’t let you live in a car, not even for another night. I called Aunt Cassie. She said of course they’d take you in, so I’m putting you on a bus today. There’s one that leaves early this morning.”
She shoved his hand aside in indignation. “And what about you, then? Aren’t you coming, too?”
“I can’t,” Bart said, and his tone sobered her. “It’s been too long, Buddy. Dad thought he’d be back by now. He’d have come home if he could have. And if he could have called, he would have. Something’s happened to him, and I have to go find out what.”
She swallowed, her fighting spirit wilting. “What could have happened?” she whispered. “You don’t think he’s . . . hurt or something, do you?” Or dead? she was wondering.
Bart inhaled deeply and then let the breath all out. “Maybe. It had to be something serious, or he’d have kept his promise to get in touch. I have to go, Buddy. Don’t make it any harder by refusing to cooperate. You have to go to Aunt Cassie’s.”
The recollection of that drunken man peering into the car while he tried the door handle sent a shudder through her, and she knew Bart was right. But she made one last feeble try to avoid being sent to an aunt who had, it had always seemed, not liked their mother. “Why can’t I come with you, then, wherever you have to go?”
“Because you’re eleven years old, not seventeen, and we’d still have to be living in the car until I either find Dad or get a job to earn enough to support us. I don’t want us to be apart, either, kid, so don’t make it any harder than it has to be.”
Her shoulders sagged, and she held back the prickle of tears. “Okay,” she said softly. “What time’s the bus?”
Willo Davis Roberts wrote many mystery and suspense novels for children during her long and illustrious career, including The Girl with the Silver Eyes, The View from the Cherry Tree, Twisted Summer, Megan’s Island, Baby-Sitting Is a Dangerous Job, Hostage, Scared Stiff, The Kidnappers, and Caught! Three of her children’s books won Edgar Awards, while others received great reviews and other accolades, including the Sunshine State Young Reader’s Award, the California Young Reader’s Medal, and the Georgia Children’s Book Award.