Fever is often accompanied by a chill.
To Haley Miller, there was nothing worse than getting close to a friend or a boy only to then be snubbed. It was twice as bad as someone not liking you in the first place. Which was why she found it so incredibly unacceptable that certain people in Hillsdale were now avoiding her after she had spent almost all of spring break with them.
What is going on? Haley thought, baffled as to why no one was returning her e-mails or phone calls.
Fortunately, Haley had something to distract her. The Miller family was driving down to Pennsylvania to celebrate Easter Sunday at her grandmother Polly's horse farm, Penn Ultimate. Gam called it that because, as she said, "This is the second-to-last place I want to go before I die. After that, it better be the pearly gates of heaven."But to Haley, Penn Ultimate was paradise itself. Gam's squat yellow farmhouse and old red barn were tucked between a fruit orchard and a horse pasture where three palominos were usually grazing, snorting or stamping their hooves in the rich brown dirt. A spring-fed swimming hole sat at one edge of the property, and there was a vegetable garden in the backyard. Fresh milk and eggs were delivered twice weekly by neighboring farmers.
Haley had yet to encounter such perfection anywhere else on earth--at least, not in the few parts of the world she had seen so far. In fact, the only things Haley could have done without at Gam Polly's were the old knitting needles, pattern books and yarn spools packed into one of the spare-bedroom closets. Considering the harm Gam Polly could inflict with her chosen craft, the knitting supplies were about as terrifying as if Gam kept a closet full of rusty knives and meat hooks. Even so, the prospect of two nights at Penn Ultimate was tantalizing--almost enough to make Haley forget that her cell phone refused to vibrate. Almost.
"Here we are!" Perry Miller, Haley's dad, exclaimed as he pulled up the drive in the family's hybrid SUV. Freckles, the Millers' overeager Dalmatian, was the first to bound out of the car. He barked excitedly, did a few laps around the house, then rolled on the lawn with Gam's black Scottie dog, Arthur, as Haley and her little brother, Mitchell, got out to stretch their legs.
"Do you. Think. Gam. Has been knitting. Since Christmas," Mitchell asked Haley in a deliberate monotone. Mitchell had insisted on talking like a robot for almost a year now, and Haley had sort of gotten used to it.
"Sorry, Mitchie," Haley replied, pulling her straight auburn hair into a bun. "But I think we must always assume that Gam Polly has been knitting."
Joan Miller got out of the front seat holding a picnic basket overflowing with home-baked goods. "Can I offer anyone a snack?" she asked brightly. Ever since Haley's mom had won her recent toxic torts lawsuit, she had been fervently devoting herself to her family to make up for the "lost months" she had spent on her case.
Perry too had recently completed his latest project, a three-years-in-the-making documentary on the life cycle of deciduous trees. Needless to say, there was a lot more Miller togetherness these days.
"Well, finally," Gam said, descending the front steps in a gray quilted jacket, gardening gloves and dark blue dungarees. "I thought we might have to send out a search party."
"Who. Is that," Mitchell asked Haley as they caught a glimpse of a smiling, gray-haired gentleman standing sheepishly on the porch.
Gam cast a glance over her shoulder. "Oh, that's just Harvey Pickleman," she declared in her typical no-nonsense way while giving Haley and Mitchell a good squeeze. "He lives next door. We play backgammon sometimes.""What is. A pickle man," Mitchell asked, still eyeing Harvey suspiciously. Haley too was curious. So this must be the reason Gam had to race back to Pennsylvania after Christmas, she thought, recalling her grandmother's hasty departure in the middle of the Miller family meltdown.
"I'm not sure I know what a pickleman is, Mitchell," said Gam. "All I can tell you is, that fellow over there don't know a cucumber from a zucchini." She cracked a smile and boomed, "Now, Perry, come give your old mother a hug."
Haley watched as her grandmother shot Joan a disapproving look over Perry's shoulder. Gam had been in Hillsdale during the worst of Joan's workaholic phase, and she wasn't about to let her daughter-in-law forget it, even if the rest of the family had already forgiven and forgotten.
"Come on into the house," Gam said finally, rounding up the Miller crew. "I've got fried chicken and potato salad for lunch, and I just might be persuaded to make some ice cream before supper." Gam charged through the front door, leaving Harvey to make his own introductions.
Yep, Haley thought, approaching Mr. Pickleman to shake his hand, this is going to be one interesting trip.
It took approximately three hours for Harvey to win over Haley and Mitchell, which also happened to be exactly how long it took them to learn he was an ace at Ping-Pong. From that point on, Gam's sunroom was transformed into a competitive arena, with Harvey stationed at one end of the bright green table. He faced each of the kids across the net before besting Perry, who considered Ping-Pong a sport worthy of Olympic-level concentration.