Escape was clearly the only option.
“This is the wrong address,” Darby said to the cab driver. “Just take me back to the airport – I’ll figure something out there.”
“I’m sorry, dear,” the driver said apologetically, and gestured at the scrap of paper clipped to his dashboard. “I’ve been given strict instructions to drop one Miss D. Christopher at this here address. And if I know Etta, she’d be mighty upset with me if I misplaced her granddaughter.”
Great. Darby stared glumly out the window at the scene unfolding outside. “You know my Nan?”
The cab driver popped the trunk and heaved himself out of the car. “Everyone knows your nan, kiddo. She’s a good sport. So’s your grandpa.”
Darby didn’t budge. From the cab window she watched as a woman with vivid red hair stepped up and placed her hand on the shoulder of some guy operating a ladder on a fire truck. Even from inside the cab Darby could see the way the woman’s lips pinched together.
She was talking to Ladder Guy. After a few words he nodded and yelled up to his partner. The bucket lowered with a jerk, the woman stepped inside and the contraption rose up to near the top of the tree.
Bad enough to be stuck in some little one-lobster town for the summer. Bad enough to have to fly here as an unaccompanied minor in a cattle car disguised as an airplane. Bad enough that no one bothered to show up to meet the plane. But when the taxi pulled up in front of Darby’s grandparents’ house it was hard to decide which was worse: a man she had never met perched high in the branches of an old oak tree, or the crowd below, as they laughed, chatted and cheered on the fireman in his cherry picker, trying to talk the old coot down.
Darby recognized Gramps from a couple of old pictures that her dad kept in a bottom drawer. She’d never met either of her grandparents in person – at least as long as she could remember. Nan had to be one of the grey-haired ladies waiting at the bottom of the ladder. She hadn’t seen her face yet, mostly because Darby didn’t want to meet anyone’s eye. Why any of this was happening was a mystery. She could feel her face flaming.
The cab driver opened the door and offered his hand to help Darby out. She ignored it, grabbed her backpack and stepped onto the street. It must have rained earlier, and one of her new white runners splashed square into a rusty puddle by the curb.
“Was trying to help you avoid that,” muttered the driver, as he stalked around the back of the vehicle.
Darby thought about getting mad at this, but the truth was the scene in the front yard had used up all her available emotions at the moment.
She felt the cabbie’s hand on her shoulder. “Yer grandpa is just having everyone on, Missy. The man has a sense of humour that’s funny as a three-dollar bill.”
She shook off his hand and forced herself to look around the crowd of people. The two grey-haired women stood out from the rest. While everyone else chattered and laughed, they stayed put right near the truck, watching the other lady take her trip up in the cherry picker. Darby took a deep breath, shouldered her pack and headed over.
At the treetop, the red-haired woman was having more luck than Ladder Guy. She had barely said two words before the old man was reaching his hand out to grasp the side of the bucket. He stepped smartly into the cherry picker just like it had been his plan all along.
Ladder Guy steered the bucket down and Darby’s grandfather waved to the cheering crowd as they descended. The shadows began to lengthen and people started to wander away.
One of the old women on the ground embraced the red-haired woman as she stepped out of the cherry picker, so Darby headed for the other one.
“Excuse me,” she said, but the woman did not appear to hear. Darby repeated herself a bit louder. The lady finally heard Darby and turned in surprise. “Goodness gracious!” she said, peering up into her face.“This must be wee Darby!”
Since the girl was taller by about three inches, Darby felt she could have safely dropped the “wee” part. Sheesh.
The lady looked over at the cab. The taxi driver had walked over to shake hands with the crazy old man and both of them were laughing uproariously.
“We’ve been expecting you, dear,” she said, and immediately began rummaging in the giant vinyl bag that dangled from her arm. “Ernie will need his fare. Let me just look after it, now that all the excitement is over.” She scurried across and thrust some money at the driver who doffed his hat.
“Thank you kindly, Helen. That’ll do nicely.” Darby could hear his radio crackle from the depths of his car. He gave a final slap on the shoulder to the star of the show and slammed himself back into his cab before slowly coasting off down the street.
The old lady scurried across the grass and gave Darby another thorough looking-over before clutching her by the arm. Her eyes narrowed and her mouth tightened a little.
“Quite an arrival time you’ve chosen,” she said. “Hasn’t been this much excitement since someone tried to blow up the legislature a few years ago.”
Great. Nothing like a grandparent whose antics compare to a terrorist act.
Still clutching Darby’s arm, she turned to holler across the lawn. “Look who I’ve got here, Etta!” she crowed. The red-haired woman snapped her head around.
As soon as Darby saw the red-haired woman’s face up close, she knew her. She looked just like Darby’s dad, except shorter, wrinklier and female, of course.
“Helen,” she said to the lady who was still gripping Darby like a prize tuna, “did you pay Ernie for his drive from the airport?”Great,
thought Darby. We haven’t even met yet, and I’m already a financial burden.
“There’s no need for that, I’m sure,” she said, when Helen bobbed her head. “Now take this, and thank you for your kindness.”
She pressed money into Helen’s palm and turned to face Darby, taking the girl’s shoulders in her hands and gazing at her from arm’s length.
“So this is the Darby-girl at last.” For the first time a smile broke through the worry on her face. “I meant to meet you at the airport, but as you can see, my plans changed a little.” She brushed her hands off briskly. “Excitement’s all over, my dear. Let’s get you inside and settled, shall we?”
“But . . .” Darby looked over at the old man, still beaming and shaking hands with well-wishers.
“Ach, never mind your grandfather right now, love. I’ll see to him presently.”
Nan bustled off, muttering something about dinner being charred beyond recognition. The fire truck honked once as it pulled away from the curb, and Darby reached down to grab her suitcase from where Ernie had left it on the front porch.
The scent of dinner wafted through a window. In spite of Nan’s worry, nothing smelled burned, but Darby didn’t feel hungry in the slightest. As she straightened up with her suitcase, she found Gramps standing with a hand on the porch rail. He’d stopped laughing.
“Last saw you when you were ten days old,” he said. “Ye’ve grown a bit.”
What else did he expect? Darby didn’t know what to say – so she settled on saying nothing at all.
“Best come in for your supper – don’t want to keep your Nan waiting,” he said, at last. “Some fool’s held her up enough already.” He gestured at the retreating lights of the fire truck. “Those boys’d better sharpen their eyes if they’re looking for a blaze. No fire around here, far’s I can see.” He stumped up the two steps to the front door and Darby watched it slap closed behind him.
“Welcome to Charlottetown,” she muttered, and wrestled her bags inside.
9:40 p.m. Darby lay in bed and flicked her watch light on and off.
9:41 p.m. She’d been in this time zone for less than four hours and it sure didn’t feel like bedtime. At home she’d just be flipping on her Xbox to play her favourite Tony Hawk skateboard game.
9:42 p.m. This was going to be one long summer.
After supper, Nan had promised to take Darby into town the next day. Then she had shown her around the house. Darby would be staying in her dad’s old room, up a set of back stairs at the top of the house. It had been hot up there earlier, but Nan had opened the window and the night air had cooled the room down a bit. The old folks’ room was downstairs, so she had a bit of privacy, anyhow. And, as it seemed unlikely Nan would hike up the stairs again that night, she flipped the bedside light back on. It wasn’t that she was scared of the dark or anything; she just felt like a little light, that’s all.
It seemed pretty obvious Nan hadn’t changed a thing in the room since Darby’s dad had lived there. His golf trophies were all lined up on a couple of high shelves. There was a poster on one slanted wall of a bunch of guys with electric guitars and huge hair. A rickety old desk was pushed over to the other side where the ceiling came down low. The room was right under the roof, so there was really only one wall and that had the door in it. The ceiling tilted sharply down on either side, leaving just enough space for the bed and desk.
Darby had unpacked her stuff into the desk drawers since there wasn’t a dresser. She didn’t have much anyway. Mostly bathing suits and shorts – and one of the geeky knitted sweaters that Nan sent every Christmas. Like she’d ever wear it. Darby figured her mother had just packed it so Nan might see it and consider it a regular part of her wardrobe.
The only good thing about the room was a window that jutted out. There was an old-fashioned kind of window seat beside it. It had a grotty old cushion covered in hunting dogs and wheat sheaves, but it was pretty comfortable all the same. Darby slid out of bed and padded the two steps it took to get there, careful not to make a noise that would let Nan know she was up.
From her spot at the window Darby could see the whole backyard, though it was pretty hard to pick out much in the dark. There were tons of stars – way more than she had ever seen in Toronto. Good thing, too, because they lit up the yard a bit. You never really know what’s out there if it’s pitch black.
Darby had talked to her mom on the phone after supper. She was full of the sort of fake cheerfulness that made Darby really crazy.
“We’re working hard trying to get the new house settled, darling,” her mother had said. “But we’re facing a few challenges. You are so lucky to be in PEI. The beaches! The sunshine! You must be having such a great time already!”
Darby had tried to remind her that she’d only been here for a few hours. Plus, from what she could see, the beaches were not very close and the old folks didn’t drive. But her mom just ignored her and put her dad on the line. He told Darby the house reno was a disaster – her mom must have forgotten to coach him on fake cheeriness.
When Darby complained about the beaches, he said, “Take the bus. You’re an independent kid. In my day we had to walk everywhere. I know you’ll figure it out.”
Thanks, Dad. Whatever you say.
Neither of them got her hints about Gramps and his little episode in the tree. The kitchen phone was really old with a short cord, and Darby couldn’t exactly tell them the whole story with the two oldies sitting there at the table listening. But come on. Nan and Gramps are Dad’s parents after all. How could he not see he’d sent Darby to a loony bin?
“Always looking on the dark side. Dark-side Darby.” She could hear her mother’s voice, clear as a bell. Her mother said it all the time. Except this time, her mom was five provinces away. Five provinces away from the embarrassment of a grandfather who had spent the afternoon at the top of a tree.
9:47 p.m. Not even a TV in the stupid room. Nothing for Darby to do but drag her sorry butt back into bed.
The lamp on the bedside table had a little golfer holding up the shade. Beside it was a new blue notebook. She pulled it onto her lap and worked the pen out from its spot in the coiled spine. On the last day of school – only two days ago, even though it seemed a lot longer – Darby and her classmates had been introduced to their teacher for the upcoming term. They’d met for only a few minutes, but even in that short time she could tell grade eight was going to be a real winner of a year.
Darby had never seen the teacher before. She must be new. She acted all excited and keen and wrote her name on the board in all capital letters. MS. AERIE. More like MIS-ERY. It was totally depressing.
She’d walked around the class and put a paper on every desk. Darby’s friend Sarah made a face from across the room. They couldn’t sit together because the new teacher had alphabetized the seats. Obviously the world would end if a Christopher sat next to a Slivowitz. As soon as Darby read the paper, she knew what Sarah’s face had meant. Unbelievable. Homework? Over summer?
“It’s just a little journal,” the new teacher chirped. “No more than a daily paragraph or two at most. Just tell me about your summer. You’ll be so happy that you did.”
Brandon Harris made a gagging noise behind Darby, and immediately about five of his friends copied him. It had tickled Darby to see the way Ms. Aerie’s face fell, but in the end she was tougher than she looked. “We’ll start the new year with a pizza party if all the journals are completed,” she said. Yeah, like that would make a difference.
Darby had planned to conveniently forget the whole thing, but it turned out the new teacher had sent an email to all the parents, too. Her mom had the blue notebook waiting when she got home.
Sitting up in her dad’s old bed in Charlottetown, Darby had to admit she did sort of like a new notebook. All those fresh pages. The promise of something new without the lame scribbles and scratches of actual work.
She grabbed a pen and drew a flower on the first page. Hey, it was a start. But there was no way she was going to describe meeting her grandparents. She’d be the laughing stock of the school if that
She was just considering actually hauling out some pencil crayons from her backpack when she heard something scratch the door.
Darby suddenly remembered she was alone at the top of some old house in a place she’d never been before.
Her blood froze.
Okay, maybe that’s not possible. But she was sure her heart stopped or missed a beat or something before it started up again, pounding like a jackhammer in her ears.
It’s not that she was scared of the dark, or anything. It’s just that there was no light in the tiny little staircase that led to her room. It was one old, dark stairwell.
Whatever it was scratched the door again. Darby sat there quivering in bed, hoping like mad that one of the old folks would hear the noise and come and investigate. Even a flashlight coming up the stairs would push back some of the suffocating blackness on the other side of the bedroom door.
“Who do you think you are kidding?” she whispered to herself. “Those old people are downstairs snoring while I’m up here dealing with some kind of weird Creature of the Dark.” But the sound of her own voice seemed so loud, she clapped one hand over her mouth and stared at the door, eyes wide with horror.
She was on her own.
In the corner by the desk was her dad’s old putter. Better than nothing. Her feet felt like they had cement in them, but the element of surprise was all she had.
She managed to grab the golf club and swing open the door in one fast move.
Gramps was standing there with a knife in his hand.
Darby screamed, something jumped at her and adrenaline took over.
She swung that putter like a PGA Tour veteran. Unfortunately, all she connected with was one of her dad’s trophies on a shelf over the door, and it shattered to smithereens. But, in the end, it was okay.
Because, of course, Nan was right behind Gramps in the hall. The knife turned out to be a can opener. And after everything settled down a bit, it seemed the one family member Darby hadn’t yet met was a calico cat named Maurice.
At least Nan had brought up a flashlight.
It took a whole lot of yelling and yowling, but things finally started to come clear. Gramps assured Darby that he was just trying to lure the cat downstairs with the can opener, and Nan told her she was tired of dusting that old trophy, anyhow. The cat curled up on Darby’s bed and acted as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. It was a long time after the old folks had headed back down the stairs before she was able to even think about sleep. She’d been scared – no denying it. It must have taken an hour for her heart rate to go back to normal.
But Darby had also seen the look on Gramps’s face in the instant she flung open the door. He’d looked more frightened than she was. And he looked lost. Lost in his own house.
The cat curled at her feet and purred himself to sleep. But sleep wouldn’t come for Darby. Instead, a wave of homesickness washed over her.
She closed her eyes and tried to talk herself out of her loneliness and into sleep. She had survived her first day of the visit to Charlottetown. She’d taken her first solo airplane trip. And Gramps had made it safely out of the tree. It had been a pretty weird first day of summer. Not really a comforting sort of day, all in all. She decided to leave her light on to keep any more weirdness from closing in. But it was still a long time before sleep claimed her.
Afterward, Darby often thought it was probably a good thing she hadn’t known just how much weirder things were going to get.
Excerpted from A Walk Through A Window by KC Dyer. Copyright © 2009 by KC Dyer. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada, 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.