Read Always October Online

Authors: Bruce Coville

Always October (5 page)

“We're not hurting anything, Grampa!”

“The hurt's already been done!” Turning his angry eyes on Jake, he snarled, “You'd best git.”

“Sorry, Jake,” I muttered. “You'd better go.”

He turned and ran.

I looked at my grandfather. “Why do you hate him that way?” I asked.

“Ain't him so much,” said Grampa. “It's his whole dang family.”

“But
why
?”

He didn't answer, just turned and stalked away.

6
(Jacob)

TRANSFORMATION

W
hen I got home, I found Mom having coffee with Mrs. McSweeney, who was bouncing Little Dumpling on her knee. Her shoulder bag, which mostly held her knitting, was beside her on the table. She never went anywhere without it, and I was sometimes amazed at the things she could pull out of it.

Curled up at her feet, casually licking a milk-white paw, was Mrs. McSweeney's cat, Luna Marie Eleganza the Sixth.

Mrs. McSweeney always brought Luna with her when she came to visit. This made me happy, since we don't have a pet of our own. I loved to stroke the cat—she had the silkiest fur I had ever felt. Her tail was so fluffy it looked like an ostrich plume, and her nose was as pink as peppermint candy. Her ears, too, were pink, especially when there was light shining through the thin skin.

When I first met Luna, she had been named Luna Marie Eleganza the
Fourth
. Mrs. McSweeney claimed the reason for the name change was that the cat had since used up two more of her nine lives.

“Well, if it isn't himself!” Mrs. McSweeney exclaimed when I came in. She spoke in a thick Irish brogue that I had come to love. “Come here and give your old darlin' a kiss, will ya now?”

Mrs. McSweeney's full name is Eloise Elvira McDougal Smirnov Rodriguez Chang McSweeney. The last four names were the result of outliving four husbands.

“Which was quite enough for any woman,” she had told my mother on more than one occasion. “Any more after that and I'd've felt I was takin' more than my share, if you know what I mean.”

Though she appeared frail, Mrs. McSweeney could wield an ax—she still cooked on a wood-burning stove—with amazing power and accuracy.

“It's the bread,” she had told me when I was six and staying at her house while my parents took a weekend away. Just as I was thinking I needed to find some of this bread and eat it—I was, after all, only six—she clarified by adding, “Nothin' like kneadin' bread to strengthen the arms—especially if you have fourteen children, bless the little darlin's, and are making the bread for all of them.”

When I was seven, she let me try kneading a batch of bread dough myself. I quickly understood why she had developed such sturdy muscles! That was the same year she let me watch as she beheaded one of the chickens she kept in the backyard and then prepared it for Sunday dinner. She had carefully explained each of the internal organs as she removed them from the body cavity, taking care to point out the eggs that were in various stages of development.

I had adored her ever since, though I continued to regard her with a combination of love and wary awe.

“I've got a committee meeting at church tonight, Jake,” Mom said. “I'll tuck LD in before I go. He's a good sleeper, so you shouldn't have any problem. If you do, call Mrs. McSweeney. She can be here in a jiffy.”

“And glad to do it,” agreed the older woman.

I sighed, but the truth was I didn't really mind. I like having the house to myself every once in a while.

Mom left for her meeting about two hours later. When she was gone, I went to my room and took out one of my grandfather's books. Considering how scary his stories could be, this wasn't really wise—especially given the fact that I was pretty much alone in a house that would make a good set for a horror movie. But I couldn't resist.

One of the things I like about the Always October stories is that despite the fact of them being so weird and scary, somehow my grandfather always managed to weave in an idea called “tikkun olam.” Mom told me it's a Hebrew phrase about “repairing the world.” She likes the idea and tries to live by it (even though we're Methodist, not Jewish). I think it's one of the reasons she felt so strongly about taking in Little Dumpling.

Arthur also believed it was important to act on this idea … which is kind of odd considering the way he broke his own family.

Anyway, when I finished the first story, which involved strange creatures from another dimension kidnapping orphaned children, I shuddered and put the book away. The story had made me uneasy enough that I decided I should check on Little Dumpling.

The baby was sound asleep, his pudgy fingers curled around his green plastic rattle. Looking at him, I almost thought the teasing I got from those kids who saw me buy the thing had been worth it.

“G'night, LD,” I whispered.

After returning to my own room, I took out some paper and began trying to draw Syreena, the tall, bat-winged woman in my grandfather's story. Outside, a soft rain pattered against my window while the April wind rustled through the new leaves on the oaks that surround the house. Eventually the rain stopped. The clouds shifted and the light of the full moon came streaming through my window.

I lost track of how long I had been drawing, so I wasn't sure how much time had passed when I was pulled back to the real world by a thump from LD's room.

Putting down my pencil, I went to check on the baby.

I opened the door, then stopped in my tracks.

In the crib where LD should have been, wearing the same yellow duckie pajamas he had gone to sleep in, lay a creature with bright green fur, the beginnings of a snout, and enormous pointed ears that curled over his head.

Had the baby turned into a monster? Or was this some horrible substitution?

Torn between fascination and terror, I moved toward the crib.

The furry baby opened its eyes and smiled at me, displaying a huge mouth full of glistening fangs.

I reversed course and backed toward the door. “Mom?” I called. At least, I tried to call her. My voice didn't seem to be working. I tried again. This time my voice worked better than I expected.
“Mom! You'd better get in here!”

Then I remembered: she wasn't there.

What was I supposed to do if there was an emergency? Oh, right—call Mrs. McSweeney! And what was I going to say? “The baby just got all furry and grew fangs. I'm not sure what to do about it. Can you come over?”

She would think I had lost my mind.

I looked back at the creature in the crib. Still clutching its rattle, it held out its arms in the classic “pick me up” gesture that Little Dumpling always used. But where LD had tiny, clear fingernails, this thing had sharp black claws.

I had no ritual for dealing with a situation like this.

When I didn't move, the baby beast started to cry. Not a tantrum; just a small, sad whimper. The tears rolling out of its big eyes disappeared into its green fur.

I hardened myself against the sight. Who knew what the little monster might do if I picked it up? Part of me felt I should just turn and run. But the wretched thing continued to stare at me with those big, pleading eyes. It reached for me again.

I shook my head.

It flung itself to the mattress and wailed as if I had broken its heart. “Jay-Jay,” it sobbed. “Jay-Jay!”

My eyes widened and my heart melted. LD had never talked before, but it had to be him calling for me like that!

I hurried to the crib and scooped the poor, terrified little guy into my arms. He buried his face against my chest, still sobbing, and I realized he was as frightened as I was. Maybe more so.

I moved to the rocking chair, sat, and began to rock. LD continued to wail. Desperate, I started crooning the lullabies my mother had sung to me when I was little. I started with “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral” and made it through Brahms's “Lullaby” and “Tell Me Why” before the baby stopped fussing.

I looked down at him. The kid was cute, even in monster form.

What is it about babies?
I wondered for the umpteenth time.

Still looking at the furry bundle in my arms, I had another thought:
I wish Lily was here. She'd know what to do with a baby monster
.

I sat up, earning a squawk of protest from LD. Why hadn't I thought of Lily to begin with? I had to call her.

I immediately realized two problems. (1) I didn't know her number—heck, I didn't even know if the Carkers had a phone. (2) Even if I found the number, what if when I called, I got Gnarly instead of Lily? I decided if that happened, I should just hang up.

Mom keeps a phone and phone book beside her bed. I carried LD to her room and put him down next to the pillow. He whimpered a bit but didn't raise a major fuss. I turned on the lamp on Mom's nightstand.

It didn't take long to find a “Carker,” but the initial after it was
A
, not
G
. I thought it must be the wrong Carker until I realized Gnarly was probably a nickname. (I mean, who would name a kid Gnarly?) I checked the address. Thirteen Cemetery Lane. Had to be the right place!

I took a deep breath, gave the nightstand five taps, then punched in the number. It rang several times. I was about to give up when I heard Lily say, “Carker residence. Who's calling, please?”

“Thank goodness!” I said. “I was terrified I would get your grandfather.”

A long silence followed. Finally she said, “It's nice to hear from you, Juliet, but I don't understand why you're calling.”

I pulled the phone from my ear and stared at it.

Who the heck was Juliet?

7
(Lily)

INTO THE CLOSET

I
t took Jacob longer than it should have to figure out that I called him “Juliet” because I didn't want my grandfather to know who I was talking to! For a smart guy, he can be a little slow on the uptake.

He finally got it. “Sorry!” he said hastily. “I don't want to get you in trouble, Lily. But I really, really,
really
need to talk to you.”

“Can't it wait until tomorrow,
Juliet
?”

“No, it can't! The baby just turned into a monster!”

I could hardly keep from laughing. Trying to remain serious, I said, “Oh, Juliet! I know this is your first time being a big sister, but you have to understand that this happens sometimes. The baby is probably just teething.”

“No, Lily,
you
don't understand! I'm trying to tell you that LD just turned into a monster—as in, he grew fangs and fur. I think he's bigger, too. I'm afraid he's gonna bust out of his pj's!”

I was starting to get angry. Jake and I had invented some great imaginary games, but calling me at home was too much. I carried the phone into the hall. Keeping my voice low but still worried about my grandfather overhearing, I hissed, “Listen,
Juliet
, this could be fun but you
can't
call me like this. We can start the game tomorrow.”

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