‘Not funny, Percy. Not funny at all.’
The old lady in the middle took out a huge pair of scissors – gold and silver, long-bladed, like shears. I heard Grover catch his breath.
‘We’re getting on the bus,’ he told me. ‘Come on.’
‘What?’ I said. ‘It’s a thousand degrees in there.’
‘Come on!’ He prised open the door and climbed inside, but I stayed back.
Across the road, the old ladies were still watching me. The middle one cut the yarn, and I swear I could hear that snip across four lanes of traffic. Her two friends balled up the electric-blue socks, leaving me wondering who they could possibly be for – Sasquatch or Godzilla.
At the rear of the bus, the driver wrenched a big chunk of smoking metal out of the engine compartment. The bus shuddered, and the engine roared back to life.
The passengers cheered.
‘Darn right!’ yelled the driver. He slapped the bus with his hat. ‘Everybody back on board!’
Once we got going. I started feeling feverish, as if I’d caught the flu.
Grover didn’t look much better. He was shivering and his teeth were chattering.
‘What are you not telling me?’
He dabbed his forehead with his shirt sleeve. ‘Percy, what did you see back at the fruit stand?’
‘You mean the old ladies? What is it about them, man? They’re not like… Mrs Dodds, are they?’
His expression was hard to read, but I got the feeling that the fruit-stand ladies were something much, much worse than Mrs Dodds. He said, ‘Just tell me what you saw.’
‘The middle one took out her scissors, and she cut the yarn.’
He closed his eyes and made a gesture with his fingers that might’ve been crossing himself, but it wasn’t. It was something else, something almost – older.
He said, ‘You saw her snip the cord.’
‘Yeah. So?’ But even as I said it, I knew it was a big deal.
‘This is not happening,’ Grover mumbled. He started chewing at his thumb. ‘I don’t want this to be like the last time.’
‘What last time?’
‘Always sixth grade. They never get past sixth.’
‘Grover,’ I said, because he was really starting to scare me. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Let me walk you home from the bus station. Promise me.’
This seemed like a strange request to me, but I promised he could.
‘Is this like a superstition or something?’ I asked.
‘Grover – that snipping of the yarn. Does that mean somebody is going to die?’
He looked at me mournfully, like he was already picking the kind of flowers I’d like best on my coffin.
3 Grover Unexpectedly Loses His Trousers
Confession time: I ditched Grover as soon as we got to the bus terminal.
I know, I know. It was rude. But Grover was freaking me out, looking at me like I was a dead man, muttering, ‘Why does this always happen?’ and, ‘Why does it always have to be sixth grade?’
Whenever he got upset, Grover’s bladder acted up, so I wasn’t surprised when, as soon as we got off the bus, he made me promise to wait for him, then made a beeline for the restroom. Instead of waiting, I got my suitcase, slipped outside, and caught the first taxi uptown.
‘East One Hundred and Fourth and First Avenue,’ I told the driver.
A word about my mother, before you meet her.
Her name is Sally Jackson and she’s the best person in the world, which just proves my theory that the best people have the rottenest luck. Her own parents died in a plane crash when she was five, and she was raised by an uncle who didn’t care much about her. She wanted to be a novelist, so she spent high school working to save enough money for a college with a good creative-writing programme. Then her uncle got cancer, and she had to quit school in her senior year to take care of him. After he died, she was left with no money, no family and no diploma.
The only good break she ever got was meeting my dad.
I don’t have any memories of him, just this sort of warm glow, maybe the barest trace of his smile. My mom doesn’t like to talk about him because it makes her sad. She has no pictures.
See, they weren’t married. She told me he was rich and important, and their relationship was a secret. Then one day, he set sail across the Atlantic on some important journey, and he never came back.
Lost at sea, my mom told me. Not dead. Lost at sea.
She worked odd jobs, took night classes to get her high school diploma, and raised me on her own. She never complained or got mad. Not even once. But I knew I wasn’t an easy kid.
Finally, she married Gabe Ugliano, who was nice the first thirty seconds we knew him, then showed his true colours as a world-class jerk. When I was young, I nicknamed him Smelly Gabe. I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. The guy reeked like mouldy garlic pizza wrapped in gym shorts.