Light barely crept through the gray trees. The damp ground sucked at my shoes and a breeze slid past my neck.
I slapped at a bug.
"Shhh," whispered Reuben behind me.
"What do you mean 'shhh'?" I whispered back. "Nobody can hear."
"We're in a cemetery." Reuben's voice dipped lower. "We need to show respect."
I turned. "I am showing--"
Next thing--ow!--I hit the ground.
"You okay?" Reuben whispered.
"Quit whispering," I said very loud. "It's making me nervous."
Reuben shot me a scared look. "Man, look what tripped you."
I struggled to my feet. "Stop it, Reuben," I said. "I bumped into a gravestone, that's all."
Beyond the old cemetery, the dark forest rustled. "Let's go, Jackson." Reuben's voice cracked. "Something's out there."
"We need to get what we came for," I replied, edging past the moss-slick gravestone.
Then I saw the name cut in that stone.
Behind the grave, a thorny rope of flowers twined round a broken fence.
Roses. I should have known roses would do me in.
A chill grabbed my whole neck.
Roses have always brought me bad luck. But thanks to my mama, I am stuck with them--and all their little green cousins: African violets, philodendrons, pansies. Mama loves plants. Our home is stuffed with them. This might be fine in the country, where Mama grew up, but it is way too much green for a city apartment. I eat with a fern, sleep in a jungle, talk to a six-foot ficus.
Whenever I complain, Mama smiles. She claims plants are good for you. Her words: "They clear the air, soothe the eyes, and decrease stress."
Decrease stress. That's a laugh.
This past year has been the most stressful of my life.
Right to that very moment in the graveyard.
It all started on my tenth birthday last April. I had been sure I was getting a basketball. But Mama gave me . . . dirt. A plot in Rooter's Community Garden on Evert Street. And there was no way I could give it back. Mama had been so happy to give me a "little piece of country."
Talk about trouble. That garden constantly messed with me. And my puddle-of-thorns rosebush was the worst. My best bud, Reuben Casey, and I spent all summer trying to grow something (besides weeds). Then I spent all fall trying to save the garden--my plot and twenty-eight others. I rescued Rooter's from certain doom, from being bulldozed and turned into a building.
Now it was April again. I needed a break from plants.
Instead, they were still in my face. Literally.
That's because Mama had gone back to college to study plants. And she had started her own business, Green Thumb. Two days a week she tended the green things in offices; the other days she worked a normal job downtown. Green Thumb now had twelve clients, and Mama's business was growing. Literally.
Well, I just started my own business, too. I have only one client--but he feels like twelve 'cause he keeps me so busy. Mr. Kerring is my next-plot neighbor at Rooter's. He is the oldest and bossiest person I know. The man can remember back to when Rooter's was a World War II victory garden, more than sixty years ago.
Mr. K. was the very reason I was standing that day in a cemetery. Shivering by a grave. Staring at roses.
Crackle-crick. That noise again from the forest. Closer this time. Reuben's eyes widened. "Jackson," he whispered. "What do you think--"
"Quit whispering." I grabbed the rose vine. "It's probably a squirrel."
"Or a bear."
I pulled some teeny scissors from my pocket.
Reuben snorted. "You gonna trim the bear's toenails?"
"For your information, these are houseplant pruning shears. I'm gonna take a cutting. Here, hold this end."
Reuben cautiously pinched the vine. "Tell me again why we're doing this."
"Because Mr. K. wants to be a rose rustler."
Of course, right then the man was waiting in a rental car by the side of the road. And Reuben and I were stuck in the cemetery.
As I opened the shears, I got a sudden mind picture of how our rustling had started. Two days before Mr. K. and I had visited Rooter's, and the man, as usual, had begun bossing his plants. Commanding them to grow. Then he'd started in on my rosebush.
"Late spring already and not one single bud."
Now, my rosebush was no sweet-blooming angel, believe me. It was a puddle of thorns. A mess of mean sticks. But last fall it had snagged a bully named Blood. Laid him low. Since then, well . . . I might not like roses, but I have respect.
Mr. K. had pointed to the yellow blooms climbing Rooter's chain-link fence. "Those are roses," he'd said. "Tough as cowhide." He had banged his cane for emphasis. "My gran brought the clipping from Texas, stuck in a potato. Those roses have survived drought, flood, and heat that would singe your hair. No coddling for them. And they flower longer than any modern fancy-pants rose."
Mr. K. had banged his cane again. It stuck in the garden path.
I had helped wrestle it out. "Thanks, Jackson," he'd sighed.
Even more than today's puny roses, Mr. K. hated his cane. He had always worked his own perfect plot, but last winter he had taken a bad fall. So he had hired me to bend and lift and tote. My job: to keep his plants marching in straight rows.
That day in Rooter's, he had proposed another job: rose rustling.
"We'll search abandoned houses," he had explained, eyes gleaming. "We'll hunt in graveyards. I used to rustle roses all the time when I was younger. That's how you find bushes more than a hundred years old."
"Why don't you just buy a rosebush?"
"The old roses are hardier and prettier, and smell sweeter, too. But people don't grow them anymore, so stores don't stock 'em. All you can get are big show-off hybrids. No, you have to hunt for the old ones. With rustlin', you never know what you might find."
Rustling, huh? Sounded like Mr. K. wanted to play outlaw of the Old West. Cowboy hat and all. I was hoping he'd forget the whole idea in a week.
The man had shuffled down the path to his grandmother's roses and carefully snapped off a few. "For your mama," he said. "Isn't that your car?"
"Car" didn't exactly describe what Mama was driving. It was huge, hulking, and green.
The zucchini mobile. Mama's van for her Green Thumb business.
But at least it was big enough to hold me, Mr. K., the cane, and all Mama's snipping, sprinkling, plant-doctoring tools.
"Those roses smell wonderful!" Mama greeted us. "And what unusual petals. What are they called?"
"They don't need any fancy-pants name," Mr. K. humphed, climbing into the van. "'Rose' is good enough. Right, Jackson?"
"Uh, yeah," I said, slouching low in my seat.
As Mama steered the zuke mobile up Evert Street, I slouched lower. Up ahead was the blacktop, a basketball net, and four hoop-shooting guys.
It was impossible to hide.
As the zuke mobile cruised by, each guy grinned and stuck up a thumb.
For Green Thumb.
Talk about embarrassing.
In one year, Rooter's had crushed my cool reputation. Believe me, I am no Farmer in the Dell. One blacktop-booming, b-ball ace, that's me. Shootin', jukin', always on the move. Dribble, dunk--SCORE.
I got a sudden mind picture of me in a cowboy hat. A rose rustler rather than a basketball star. I shuddered. Surely, Mr. K. would forget.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Jackson Jones and the Curse of the Outlaw Rose by Mary Quattlebaum. Copyright © 2006 by Mary Quattlebaum. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.