William S. AND THE GREAT ESCAPE
His birth certificate, if he even had one, probably just said Willy Baggett, but for most of the seventh grade he’d been signing his school papers William S. Baggett.
William S. Baggett
But that, too, would change as soon as he made his move. No more Baggett then—and good riddance.
Actually, he’d started thinking about running away almost seven years ago. That was when he’d started going to school and began to learn, among other things, that not everybody behaved like Baggetts. And not very long after that he began putting every penny he could get his hands on into what he thought of as his Getaway Fund. Well, not quite every penny. He did spend a dime, now and then, on a Saturday matinee at the Roxie Theater. Watching how your favorite movie actors could make
you believe they were all those different people was one thing he’d never been able to do without.
In spite of an occasional movie, his secret stash had grown pretty fast while the Baggetts still lived in the city, where there were lots of lawns to mow and flower gardens to water and weed. And even after they had to get out of town, he’d managed to add a few coins now and then by doing odd jobs at school—carrying stuff for teachers, and mopping up on rainy days for Mr. Jenkins, the janitor.
He’d made other plans and preparations too. Besides saving his earnings, he began to keep a long, narrow knapsack beside his bed, and all his most important belongings right there within arm’s reach, ready to push into it. And then, someday, he would take his Getaway Fund out of its supersecret, hard-to-reach hiding place, sling his knapsack over his shoulder, and simply walk away. And that would be that.
But what then? Where would he run to? Over the years he’d changed his mind a lot, but just recently he’d come up with some interesting possibilities. Like, how about Hollywood? Or Broadway in New York City? Or even better, Stratford-upon-Avon. Okay, not likely. But, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Right?
He never told anyone, of course. Not even Jancy, at least not until after she’d pretty much guessed. But the little bit Jancy knew didn’t worry him that much.
His sister would never do anything to ruin his future career. He was sure of that. Well, he had
been sure anyway, until the day her guinea pig got flushed down the toilet, which not only messed up the plumbing, but apparently changed everything.
Sweetie Pie had been Jancy’s pet ever since her fourth-grade teacher got tired of a health class experiment that involved feeding some guinea pigs fruits and vegetables, and some others nothing but candy and cookies. Sweetie Pie had been one of the stunted sweet-stuff pigs, and she never quite made it to normal guinea pig size. Not even after Jancy went to the trouble to clear off a stretch of cluttered, weed-grown land to plant a vegetable garden. She did manage to grow a little bit of healthy stuff for Sweetie Pie, and she would have grown a lot more if Gary and the twins hadn’t decided to use her garden plot as one end of their football field.
Even though Sweetie Pie never got much bigger, she was, according to Jancy, the smartest, cutest guinea pig that ever lived. But then came the first of August, 1938, and Sweetie Pie’s story came to a sad end.
William found out about it soon after it happened, when he overheard the twins snickering outside the bathroom door. What he heard them saying was how they’d managed to “get rid of that stinkin’ rat, and let Buddy take the rap.”
William wanted to pound on the door and yell at
them—not that that would have accomplished anything, except getting himself beaten to a pulp. Besides being extra big for fourteen-year-olds, Al and Andy were extra vicious. So William bit his lip and went looking for Jancy.
For a while he couldn’t find her anywhere. Not in the room she shared with Trixie and Buddy, and not anywhere else in the big old wreck of a house. Not hiding behind any of the junkyard furniture in what might once have been a pretty nice living room, or out on the halfway collapsed veranda, either. But then, as he was checking the back hall, there she was, walking toward her room with her mop of hair hiding her face as usual. But when she saw him, she put her finger in her ear—their secret signal that asked for a talk in their private hideout.
Okay, fine. No amount of talk was going to do poor Sweetie Pie any good at that point, but William knew how Jancy must be feeling, and if talking would help, he was ready to listen. Ready and willing, even though it meant making a feverish (hay feverish, that is) trip to the barn—the huge, saggy-roofed building that sat about fifty yards from the condemned farmhouse where the Baggetts had been hanging out ever since they got more or less kicked out of downtown Crownfield.
Nowadays the barn was a kind of junkyard where all the Baggetts who were old enough to drive—not to mention the ones who drove even though they weren’t
old enough—had stashed the body parts of a whole lot of dead hot rods, pickup trucks, and motorcycles. Down there on the ground floor the scene was nothing but rusty carcasses, but up above the car cemetery there was a secret place that nobody seemed to know about except William and Jancy. A deserted area that must have been a hayloft back in the days when the huge old building had been a cow barn instead of a car dump.
So a moldy hayloft had become their favorite place to have a really private conversation, in spite of what it always did to William’s hay fever. He didn’t mind that much about the hay fever thing. Being forced to choose between being teased and tormented or having hay fever wasn’t nearly the worst thing about being at the bottom of the Baggett pecking order.
On the plus side, the loft was fairly handy. All it took was a well-timed scamper across the cluttered yard to the barn door. And then a careful zigzag around and over fractured fenders and rusty radiators until you got to a narrow ladder that led up to a place where you could scrunch down behind a big pile of moldy hay and be fairly sure none of the bigger Baggetts would show up.
Up behind the haystack, in between William’s sneezing and sniffing fits, he and Jancy had now and then managed to come up with the kind of plans that were necessary in order to survive as comparatively small and defenseless Baggetts. Plans like how to discourage Gary
from throwing your books off the bus on the way to school, or where to hide your most precious possessions where Al and Andy couldn’t get at them. So it was up there in the hayloft that William was waiting when Jancy’s curly head and red, weepy eyes appeared over the edge of the loft floor.
The weepy eyes were no surprise. But what he certainly hadn’t foreseen was how the conversation began. The very first words out of Jancy’s mouth were, “Look here, William, I know you’re getting ready to run away. You are, aren’t you?”
Puzzled, William shrugged. “Well, yeah, I guess so. Sooner or later. Why?”
He was still wondering what his plans for the future had to do with the sad fate of Sweetie Pie, when Jancy cleared that up by explaining that she had decided that what happened to Sweetie Pie was the last straw.
“I’m just plain finished with being a Baggett,” she told William fiercely. “So I’m going to run away too, as soon as ever I can.”
William was shocked. “What are you talking about?” he said. “You’re only eleven years old. A little kid like you can’t just take off all by yourself.”
Jancy threw up her hands. “Listen to me, William,” she said. “I didn’t mean all by myself. I said too
. Like, with you. And it has to be real soon. Like maybe tomorrow. Don’t you get it?”
William got it, but he didn’t like it. However, he knew from experience that when Jancy really made her mind up about certain kinds of things that was pretty much it—not much use to argue. But he kept trying.
“But the problem is,” he insisted, “I’m not ready yet. Look at me, Jancy. I’m just a kid.” He shrugged and screwed up his face in the kind of lopsided smile that an actor uses to show he’s joking—mostly joking, anyway. “Well okay, a supersmart and talented person, maybe, but still just a twelve-year-old kid.” He was kidding, but not entirely. He was pretty smart, all right. No Baggett, not even the ones who put him down as a smart aleck and teacher’s pet, could deny that.
And as for talented? Well, according to Miss Scott … But that was another story. The only story he had to come up with right now was one that would keep Jancy from running away. At least for a few more years.
“The kind of help you’d need for a successful getaway,” he told her, “is somebody with a lot more than just smarts. Like, what you’re going to need is some big, musclebound type guy.”
Trying for a laugh—Jancy usually liked comedy—he stuck out his skinny chest and flexed invisible muscles.
No laugh. Jancy listened, squinty eyed and silent. He sighed. Even though she’d known about his running-away plan for a long time, she also knew, or should have, that he’d always seen it as something that was going to happen
in the fairly distant future. And now, suddenly, it was like right this minute
Things were moving way too fast. It wasn’t more than an hour since the Sweetie Pie tragedy, and now Jancy was jumping the gun by announcing that she’d never been cut out to be a Baggett, and she was going to prove it by running away.
“Okay. Running away to where?” William asked. “Where you planning to go?”
Jancy raised her head and jutted her small pointed chin. “To Gold Beach,” she said firmly. “I’m going to go to Gold Beach to live with our aunt Fiona.”
William shook his head doubtfully. “I wouldn’t count on it,” he said. Fiona Hardison, their mother’s sister, was a schoolteacher who lived in a little town on the northern California coast. A woman whom William and Jancy had met only once, right after their mother died, and that was four long years ago. “What makes you think Aunt Fiona would let you live with her?” William asked.
“Oh, she will,” Jancy said. “She’ll be so happy to get Trixie and Buddy back, she’ll be glad to have you and me, too.”
And that was how Jancy finally got around to mentioning an important minor detail. Not only would William and Jancy be running away together—they were going to be taking Trixie and Buddy with them.