Authors: Dean Pitchford
Also by Dean Pitchford
The Big One-Oh
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
AN IMPRINT OF PENGUIN GROUP (USA) INC.
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
An imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group
Published by The Penguin Group
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Copyright Â© 2013 by Dean Pitchford.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Nickel Bay Nick / Dean Pitchford.
Summary: When eleven-year-old Sam gets into trouble and is forced to work for his reclusive neighbor Mr. Wells, he soon finds out that his mysterious new acquaintance hides many secrets of his ownâincluding one that will change Sam's life forever.
[1. BehaviorâFiction. 2. SecretsâFiction. 3. NeighborsâFiction. 4. ChristmasâFiction. 5. City and town lifeâFiction.] I. Title.
Published simultaneously in Canada.
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
To Patrick Mealiffe,
whose heart beats throughout this story
From where I'm standing in the parking lot of the condemned Nickel Bay railroad station, I hear glass from the broken window shatter as it hits the concrete floor inside. If I could get up there, close to those high windowsâwhat is that? Twenty, thirty feet up?âI would smash them all with my fists. BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! Glass everywhere, falling like sharp snowflakes. Instead, I do my smashing from down below, using chunks of the crumbled asphalt that's poking up through the snow at my feet.
My breath makes small, quick puffs in the night air. Despite the cold, I'm sweating. Long, wet strands of brown hair are hanging in my eyes, and I'm still panting hard from running so far so fast. I hadn't meant to head for the old depot. It's just where I happened to end up when I ran out of run.
I heft another lump of asphalt and wonder, how many can I break in a row? Three? Four? And once I do, would I feel any better? Would I feel any less angry? Less betrayed?
You want the truth? This has got to be the Worst. Christmas.
And I'm including the Christmas when I was almost four, the one I spent in a hospital bed, hooked up to a hundred tubes and surrounded by racks of beeping machines. I had just had a heart transplant. Seriously. A holiday heart transplant!
And yet this Christmas is way worse. Otherwise I wouldn't be standing out here in the freezing-cold dark, shaking with fury and throwing stones.
Dad closed his shop todayâthe Nickel Bay Bakery and Cupcakery. He usually keeps it open on Christmas, but he's having a bad month. After Thanksgiving, he had to lay off his staff. Extend his hours. Cut his prices. But business is still lousy.
And guess who gets to help Dad out around the store.
I've been there every day for three weeks, after school and on weekends. Sweeping floors. Washing bread pans. Folding pastry boxes. Last Saturday I folded too many, and he flipped out. “We'll never sell this many cupcakes!” he barked. “Unfold these now!” So I pushed over a stack and told him to unfold them himself, and he warned me to watch my mouth, and I shouted that he's hardly one to talk.
That's pretty much the way it goes these days. Slam doors, throw things, and yell, yell, yell.
Window #2. The headlights from a lone car rake across the lot, and for a brief moment my shadow sweeps over the building's brick walls. What do I care if somebody sees me here? I've been picked up by the police enough times that I know the name of every cop in Nickel Bay. Dad reminded me of that this morning, when we were opening presents.
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
“I don't see anything under the tree from you to me,” he said.
I snapped back, “You cut off my allowance, remember?”
“Because you stole my car,
Okay, wait. It's not how it sounds.
who stole the car. I'm eleven, so there's no way I'm gonna drive. I just took the keys from Dad's jacket. My friend Jaxon's the one who drove the car away from the bakery. I only went along for the ride. Me and Jaxon's girlfriend, Ivy.
And I wore my seat belt. So there.
Jaxon's fifteen. Maybe he doesn't
have a driver's license, but he's already started driver's ed. He and Ivy are both older than me, but we've been a team ever since we met in the Peanut Room.
You don't know about the Peanut Room? That's where kids at my school with medical problems have to spend lunch period. Jaxon's the only one of us who's actually allergic to peanuts. Ivy's got diabetes, so she has to take an injection at lunchtime, and with this heart thing of mine, I get stuck in there so I don't get hit in the chest out on the playground.
Ivy's fascinated by anything scientific, and she's way smarter than a lot of teachers. She gets a bad rap for being difficult, but that's only because she gets bored in class. Did I mention she's also kind of gorgeous?
Jaxon does impressions. He can mimic just about any teacher at school, but he can also make a lot of other crazy sounds. Since the first time I laughed at his impression of a spoon caught in a garbage disposal, the three of us have been hanging out.
I soon learned that even though Jaxon's dad is a rich lawyer and always buys him everything he asks for, Jaxon still loves to take things that aren't his. At first we messed around in small waysâa little shoplifting here and there. No big deal. But then we got bored. And Jaxon got inventive.
Unless you're a pale fifth-grade runt with a medical condition, you wouldn't know how awesome it feels to have a couple of eighth-graders be your friendsâone who's beautiful and one who's funny. Even if the funny one sometimes suggests you do things that cross the line.
Around Thanksgiving Jaxon said he wanted to practice his driving and asked could I maybe help him borrow Dad's car. How could we know that Dad had deliveries to make that afternoon? Or that he'd call the police when he saw the empty parking space in the alley behind the bakery? Even after the cops pulled us over and I explained the whole situation, they still took us down to the station.
The next day, Dad cut off my allowance. So that's why he didn't get a Christmas present.
Serves him right.
Me? I got the usual crap I get every year, the stuff Dad would have to get me anyway. But when he wraps it in holiday paper and makes me open it on Christmas morning, he calls it a “present.” Socks. Underwear. A pair of jeansâ
Isn't it bad enough I've got a secondhand heart?
“You have anything to say about your presents?” Dad asked.
“You call these presents?” Maybe that was mean, but he was working my last nerve.
I bit out each word. “Thank. You. For. My. Presents.” Then I looked over his shoulder. Twisted to peek behind the sofa. “Where is it?”
I folded my arms. “That thing I'm getting.”
Dad shrugged. “I don't know what you're talking about.”
“You know!” I was getting impatient. “What I asked for.”
I asked for a suitcase. A small one with wheels. For my trip to see Mom. The day after Christmas, I was finally going to get away from Dad and the bakery and gray, gray Nickel Bay, and go stay with Mom until school started. It had been nine months since I last saw her.
“Your mother and I talked,” Dad began carefully.
“About what?” I spit out.
“Temper,” Dad warned.
“What did you say to her?” I demanded.
“We talked about”âI could tell he was choosing his words carefullyâ“about your behavior lately.”
?” Dad started to count on his fingers. “You vandalized the teachers' lounge at school.”
“I accidentally broke a lamp!” I shouted. “That TV screen was already cracked.”
“You spray-painted graffiti on the back wall of the Crestwood Retirement Home.”
“Nobody ever goes back there!”
“You skipped seven days of school. You missed our last appointment with Mrs. Atkinson at Family Services.”
“She hates me!”
“And you stole my car, which resulted in your fifth trip to police headquarters this year.”
“They didn't arrest me!”
“That's because every cop in Nickel Bay has known me since high school!” Dad's voice was getting louder now. “But it's not because you didn't deserve it!”
He had run out of fingers to count on. I had run out of excuses. We stared at each other.
“So, you and Mom talked.”
“We talked,” he said quietly, “and we agreed that your trip was to have been aÂ .Â .Â . reward. And we agreed thatÂ .Â .Â .”
That's where I stopped listening. Blah blah blah blah blah. Long story short? I'm not going anywhere. Two more weeks till school starts again. Two more weeks of sweeping out the bakery and fighting with my dad and hating my life.
Then he had the nerve to add, “And remember, we're going over to Lisa's for Christmas dinner.”
“Forget it,” I snapped.
Dad's been seeing Lisa for about a year now. She used to sell perfume at Dillard's Department Store until she got laid off.
Dad's eyes narrowed. “What did you say?”
“You heard me!” It was my turn to count on my fingers. “You ground me for two months. You stop my allowance. You make me work for no pay. You give me underwear for Christmas instead of the rolling suitcase you promised.”
“I never promised you aâ”
“You turn Mom against me and screw me out of my visit with her, and then what? You think I'm just gonna tag along and sit around Lisa's table with her two screaming girls and pretend we're all having a nice Christmas dinner? I'd rather drink gasoline.”
Dad's never smacked me. I'm sure he's scared it would stop my heart or something. But I can tell when he wants to, and that was one of those times.
I spent the rest of the day in my bedroom. It's hardly private, though, since Dad took the door off its hinges last month. He said I slammed it “one too many times.”
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
Three windows in a row. I'm on fire!
When Mom left Dad and moved away from Nickel Bay, I was three and a half, and the doctors hadn't found the hole in my heart yet.
“I've got dreams,” she told Dad before she left. Mom has a really great singing voice, and over the years, she has sent me postcards saying things like, “I hope you understand, Sam, that I have to follow my star!” So far her star has taken her to Nashville and Los Angeles and tons of other places. I was always certain that, once she found success, Mom would send for me, and I'd finally get out of Nickel Bay. I'd leave Dad, with all his pathetic rules, and I'd leave the kids at school who snicker and call me Frankenstein because of the scar down my chest. I'd start a new life with Mom while she lived her dream. And maybe I'd get a dream of my own.
The last time I saw herâlast spring breakâI stayed with her in a dusty motel room in Memphis, where the temperature was about a billion degrees every day. To stay cool in the evenings, we sat around the half-filled swimming pool in the courtyard, and Mom sang me little pieces of songs she'd been trying to write. There was one called “I'm So Ready” that I liked a lot, so she taught me the chorus.
My heart is strong
My hands are steady
My future waits
And now I'm ready
I'm so ready
We'd sing at the top of our lungs until the motel manager poked his head out of his office and asked us to keep it down.
I haven't sung that song since I got back from Memphis.
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
Before Dad left for Lisa's in the late afternoon, he leaned into my bedroom. “You coming or not?”
From across the room, I could smell that he was wearing some yucky cologne Lisa gave him. He had on his stupid Christmas sweater, the one with green holly leaves and red berries on it. Dad played football in high school before he was a fireman, which was before he worked construction and before he opened the bakery. He's still a big, muscle-y guy, and with all those leaves and berries stretched across his broad shoulders, that sweater looked extra dorky. I wasn't going to be the one to tell him.
“There's leftovers in the fridge,” he said. “You know the rules: no visitors. No TV. Do not leave this house. Do I make myself clear?”
I didn't even look up. “Crystal.”
He slammed the front door on the way out. See? I'm not the only one who acts like a child.
When he wants to punish me with no TV, Dad hides the remote. If he hadn't, I wouldn't have gone snooping, and if I hadn't gone snooping, I wouldn't have found the card, so what happened next is totally his fault.
The envelope was hidden in his bottom dresser drawer, behind his unmatched socks and the shoe polish rags. The postmark said Little Rock, AR.
We don't know anybody in Arkansas.
When I opened it, a picture fell out. I didn't recognize the couple in the photoâa guy with a mustache wearing a tuxedo standing next to a lady in a white dress. She was holding a bunch of flowers, with her hair piled up in curls. They both looked goofy, they were smiling so hard. Across the bottom of the photo, in gold ink, was printed
OUR HAPPY DAYâDECEMBER 4
It took a moment before it hit me that I knew the lady.
” I whispered.
The note Mom had written inside the card was short. Just about how quiet and simple the wedding ceremony had beenÂ .Â .Â .
“Wedding?” I gasped.
.Â .Â . how happy she and Phil and his kids areÂ .Â .Â .