One bright, blustery April afternoon, Toots sat on the swing in her garden and shivered. Even though the sun was shining, a wintry wind rattled through the fence. It screamed across the lawn and shook the bare branches of the horse chestnut tree and sometimes it sounded as though it was laughing - a nasty, high-pitched laugh. Toots zipped up her jacket and shivered again.
She grabbed hold of the swing's ropes, pressed her bottom back against the seat, and kicked off. By stretching her legs out in front of her, then folding them back in, she swung higher and higher toward the sky.
From the swing Toots could see Jemma's house. Jemma had been Toots's best friend ever since she'd moved into the house across the street, but since Christmas Jemma had been acting strangely and Toots didn't like it. Jemma would promise to come over to play and then wouldn't, or she'd plan to go to the beach with Toots and then at the last minute say she couldn't go.
Then there was yesterday, the day of the car wash. Toots pushed the swing higher. Washing cars to make extra pocket money had been all Jemma's idea in the first place, and together they'd arranged to wash six neighbors' cars. But yesterday morning Jemma had mysteriously disappeared, and Toots had had to wash all the cars by herself. It had taken her till teatime.
Then this morning when Jemma had come round, she hadn't offered an explanation. She hadn't said she was sorry. She just acted as though nothing had happened. And when Toots asked her where she'd been, Jemma had just shrugged and shifted from foot to foot, then tried to change the subject.
"Do you want to come to my house and play?" Jemma had asked. But Toots had shaken her head.
"No. My dad wants me to stay in," Toots had lied. "Bye." Toots had shut the front door and watched through the peephole as Jemma crossed the road to her house.
Toots leaned back on the swing. She turned her face to the sky and tried not to think about Jemma. Instead, she focused on the horse chestnut tree. There was something so sad about it. It should have been in bud, but there wasn't a new leaf in sight. The bare branches reached out forlornly to the April sky as though they were searching for spring.
It wasn't just the tree, Toots realized. The whole garden was still bare, even though she and her father had planted hundreds of bulbs. In all the other gardens on their street, spring flowers were already nodding beneath the trees, but in Toots's garden there wasn't a crocus, nor a daffodil, nor a tulip, nor a hyacinth to be seen.
Toots's father had been so worried that he'd asked Mr. Phelps, the tree surgeon, to come and take a look. Toots had stood beside her father while Mr. Phelps, a tall man with a long red nose and bright eyes, had examined the roots, trunk, branches, and twigs of the horse chestnut tree.
He'd jabbed a stick into the soil at the foot of the tree and stared down into the hole he'd made. His sharp blue eyes seemed to burn into the earth as though he could see right through the hard brown dirt to the layers below.
"This tree's dying, all right," he'd said, patting the trunk with the flat of his hand. He crouched down and picked up a pinch of soil. He rubbed it in his fingers and sniffed it, then dropped it and stood up. "It looks like the roots are poisoning the whole garden. That's why nothing's coming up anywhere."
"Can you do anything to save it?" Toots's dad asked.
"The tree?" Mr. Phelps shook his head. "The garden, maybe, but the tree will have to come down, and the sooner the better. It’s a shame to loose such a beauty.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Toots Underground by Carol Hughes. Copyright © 2001 by Carol Hughes. Excerpted by permission of Random House Books for Young Readers, 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.