Chapter 1

Five Birds a Broiling

If Mr. Banting hadn’t started mowing his lawn at two o’clock in the morning, none of this would have happened. I like to think of it as fate. Things would have played out very differently, for better or worse I suppose, and it’s eternally up for debate whether I’m grateful or not.

The facts were simple: If the poor ageing man hadn’t lost his wife to cancer three months earlier, he would never have lost his mind, and probably wouldn’t have decided to mow his lawn every weekday at such an ungodly hour, waking the neighbourhood as a result. My mother and father were too polite, or perhaps sympathetic, to say anything about it at first, but as the weeks wore on it became too much. Disrupting our sleep was bad enough, but the clincher came (so to speak) when my eleven-year-old brother woke up one night and looked out the window to find him striding naked across his lawn pushing a mower with one hand and masturbating with the other. Mom and Dad had been looking at selling for years, ever since Dad’s first heart attack at the age of thirty-nine. Nothing against Salem, it’s a beautiful shindig and rich with history, but my parents wanted a less well-known coastal town to live out their days in. I couldn’t blame them, either. Halloween was torture. Tourists clogged our roads, which meant we often had to leave home for school and work half an hour earlier. With Mr. Banting keeping us up, that extra half hour of sleep was non-negotiable.

Of course, this was many moons ago. I can recall the first frosts of winter tinging the corners of my bedroom window that Sunday afternoon when my parents came in to tell me they were considering moving away. I wasn’t the one who needed convincing, of course. It was up to my two siblings in the end. Their rather loud, theatrical personalities meant they ruled the roost — Mom, Dad and I were quiet souls in comparison.

So here I was, months later, the early days of September. I’d been sixteen for one month and thirty days. I was counting. My sweet sixteenth had been on a Monday, and I’d suffered a run of bad luck ever since. Now I stood in a line in a fast-food outlet in the middle of nowhere, with three other girls, waiting to order some disgusting grease-covered piece of garbage claiming to be a ‘meal’.

Can you guess which one I am?

First in the line — a girl with dead straight blonde hair, glasses, braces, who sort of tilts to one side slightly as if she’s got water in her ear. Out of date clothes cover her body, zapped straight out of the seventies.

Girl number two — brown hair, fairly long. Pointed nose and a cluster of really unappealing tiny moles on her left hand. Wearing a frumpy Marvin the Martian t-shirt and shorts, with dirty blue sneakers on. So, so plain.

Girl number three — overweight, frizzy hair, stylish glasses, wearing a suit (and therefore sweating profusely). She is black, and on her phone.

Finally, girl number four — beautiful by many standards, very small though, like probably just tall enough so that she’s not classed as a midget. What you’d call petite, I guess. Stunning brown eyes and blonde hair, with perky breasts, and wearing all pink.

No, sorry to get your hopes up, I’m not the pretty one. I’m not a Disney Princess by any means. I’m not the successful black one, or the blonde nerd, either. I am the Marvin the Martian girl in the middle. So bored. So tired. So hot. So hungry. And again, so plain.

Cassandra Lillian Gellar, are you even listening to me?”

I stopped staring at a bug stuck on its back on the floor, and met my sister’s gaze in front of me. “You said that the sun sets around nine thirty-five for the next few weeks, and then it will start getting darker,” I told her.

I actually hadn’t been listening. I’d been daydreaming miserably, trying to avoid thinking about how this place didn’t seem to have air-conditioning. Somehow throughout my life I had developed this uncanny ability to sort of mentally go back in time and pick up on the last thing somebody said before they accused me of not listening. Call it magic, call it voodoo, call it whatever you want.

“Well, alright…” said my sister suspiciously.

Annie, dear Annie, was the epitome of a dork. I know it’s mean to say that, but I couldn’t describe her any better if I tried. Which is sad for me too I guess, given both my parents turned into dorks at the age of sixteen, and Annie had too. Seventeen now, being a dork was relatively new to her. I dreaded the next year. I preferred plainness over that.

We finally got our orders, consisting of far more than either of us could eat, and managed to place it all on the nearest vacant table to sort it out before leaving.

“Is it customary to leave a tip in fast food restaurants?” Annie asked me.

“No,” I sighed, and then yawned so much that it felt like one of my eyeballs had dislodged itself from the socket.

Annie shook one of the sugar packets, tore the top off and poured it into her coffee. “Dad likes sugar, right?… Or was that Mom?”

“It was Mom,” I told her, looking out at our vehicle parked terribly in the lot. “Dad can’t have sugar because of his worms.”

“Oops, well, let’s not tell him,” she said.

I watched as she poured another packet into the other coffee we’d bought. One for Mom, one for Dad.

“Or…” I glared at her, “you could have just left one of them without sugar and given it to Dad instead.”

Annie paused to understand, tilting her head again. Somehow, this brain-freezing grinky was a certified genius. And by genius, I don’t mean quite a smart one, but literally a genius. She took a test at school last year (the year she transformed from a beautiful butterfly and reversed into a caterpillar) and the teachers informed our parents that she was a genius. Boasting was her middle name now, along with May. If someone debated her, she would raise the old “I surrender… but… I am a certified genius” flag. And let’s get one thing clear. I’m not a certified genius. Nobody in our family is besides from her. It really makes you feel even less intelligent when you have a sister who’s smarter than your teachers. It raises the question deep within your soul: Why didn’t my brain get that thing?

Mom and Dad had decided to stay in our vehicle with the air-con on. Again, let’s play the guessing game. Our vehicle is one of three. I think you’ll guess right this time. The first option is a great big purple BMW with the top down. The other is a red four wheel drive, clean as a whistle. The other is a school bus from the ‘70s, painted white but with purple and green graffiti obscenities all over it.

Yes. Ours is the bus.

Five people in our family. The equivalent of six bodies. Just that one too many for our own car. Plus the dog. Then the cat. Thankfully there wasn’t a partridge in a pear tree, although we were a family riding around on a bus.

I kicked the rusty door open with my left foot, and climbed the steep steps. I chucked the food I’d carried onto the front seat next to Mom, and raced for my seat at the back. Dad, who was in the driver’s seat (and was sort of stuck there) reached behind him for his bag of food and coffee, but couldn’t reach. Mom handed it to him kindly.

Upon sitting down in the back row, very middle, I placed my music earbuds in and pretended I was listening. Quite frankly all I wanted right now was some peace and quiet. This was the easiest way.

“Where’s the toy!?”

My little brother apparently needed a plastic figurine to continue living.

I took my earphones out quickly and glanced at him. “I forgot that you were still a six year old.”

Brendan stared daggers from next to Mom, but he corrected me in a pompous tone. “I happen to be eleven!” and with that, he knocked over one of the shakes and stuck out his tongue at me.

Annie bolted upright. “My drink! Brendan, why would you do that?”

“Oh. Sorry. I thought it was Cassie’s.”

Once we’d finished eating our dinners, we were back out on the open road. Conversations generally petered out; it seemed mutually understood that it was too hot and stuffy in this old bus to do anything but think, or listen to music. Then, as we glided along a dark patch through a pine forest, Dad said something alarming: “Did somebody put sugar in my coffee?”

Terrified silence.

“Ichabod, honey, you gotta scratch?” said Mom.

Dad laughed, but it was a laugh with very little humour. “Oh boy, Lesley, I’ve gotta do more than that. I’d better pull over.”

Annie and I moaned so loudly that we ended up in harmony. This was the fourth time today we’d had to stop for him. To pee, to poo, to vomit, and now to scratch his butt because of worms he had gotten in the first place from letting the dog lick his face too much. The thing with Dad was… Well, it’s mean again, I know, but… He’s too big for britches. Seriously, he’s obese. He’s been that way since he was little. Claims it’s a disease. Which isn’t completely impossible, but Grandma told me once that the disease was his desire to eat everything in sight. She told me when he was a teenager he’d even taken a bite out of a very off piece of Brie (who could tell, right?), and he had been rushed to hospital. The next week he went back home and found the Brie in the bin and took another bite, and ended up back in hospital where they had to pump his stomach. Therefore because of his weight, he gets wedged between the seat and the cup holder in the driver’s seat of the bus. It’s the same with him for every vehicle, which is why he doesn’t normally drive. It’s one giant leap for mankind when he gets out of our Four-Wheeler. Getting in is another story.

“Don’t go too far!” Mom shouted from the door as he ran off into the woods. “There could be deer and bears and serial killers out there.”

He swiftly ran back into view, frightened of such prospects. He decided to do his scratching behind the bus instead. I prayed nobody would drive past while he was doing it, to no avail. The honking and flashing of lights added to the humiliation.

“Thank God we’re moving to a new town,” I said loudly, mortified, as the bus shook from side-to-side. “I think I’ll get the school bus from now on if this is going to happen. I don’t want any new friends to see this.”

“If you make any new friends,” said Annie.

“Oh please, I had one more friend than you ever did.” I’d had one friend, Nicole.

“Will. You. Two. Stop. Fighting?” said Mom in her scary deep voice.

Ten minutes later, Dad had scratched his itches away (and had damaged the exhaust pipe in the process), and we continued on our way. Again.

Just to let you get an idea of how long we’d spent on the bus that day: We’d left our old town of Salem at precisely 6am after having loaded the vehicle for an hour before that. So ‘early start’ is an understatement. We said goodbye to our empty and sold house, climbed on board this contraption, and travelled practically right across the country in the process. It took forever. Much longer than it should have. We should have arrived in the new town by at least 5:30pm. It was now 9:30pm. Brendan had seen a sign for a superhero convention one quarter in, so we’d had to stop in Shrove. Annie had spotted a fellow dork hitchhiking, so we gave him a lift (stupidest thing ever, because we think he stole Mom’s spare socks). We dropped him off near Camberwell. Then selfishly, I had faked needing to relieve myself of women issues so that I could go to a mall to get an album I wanted. Which I got. It amazed me how different the accents were with every place we went. I had misheard the salesperson saying: “That’s seventeen dollars, thanks,” for “That’s never been more hollowed, skank.” I looked at her weird and she looked at me weird, and it was just an incredibly awkward moment. I don’t even know why I’ve mentioned that part. After that pit-stop, we parked for lunch at about 1pm at a fast food outlet, which we didn’t expect to do again for dinner, but we were desperate.

“Which-one-of-these-boys-will-I-have-sex-with-at-the-reunion?” said Brendan, playing with his paper fortune teller whilst quoting his favourite movie. He laughed out loud after saying it.

“Brendan, don’t say that out loud,” said Mom.

“Sorry, Rhoda.”

It was nearing twilight. We were still on the highway and Dad had just turned on the lights. I shuffled across to the left hand side of the bus and rested my head against the window. I gazed out, appreciating the sort of weird massage I got from the vibrations. You know, that weird window-vibration-massage thingy everybody does when they’re on a bus, but never ‘fesses up to. It felt so nice.

Then,  I saw the beach through the trees for the briefest moment.

“Horn-Horn’s near the beach, right?” I asked, even though I knew.

“Yes,” said Annie.

“Then… I think we’re here.”

Brendan and Annie rushed to the left side of the bus and pressed their faces against the windows. Giant oak trees kept blocking what I’d seen. Finally, a hint of…

“Oh, I see a kite!” said Annie.

“I see a dolphin!” said Brendan.

“Don’t be stupid.”

“Well, don’t be a dolphin.”

A moment later we all cheered at the words ‘Horn-Horn – Next Exit’, which appeared on the giant reflective green sign ahead. Dad wriggled as he did so.

You can read what happens next in ‘Horn-Horn’ by A. D. T. McLellan!