Isabelle stood beneath a sky as gray as a pair of filthy socks. A horde of factory workers pushed past her, eager to get home to their suppers. Having eaten only half a cheese sandwich for lunch, Isabelle ached with hunger, but she needed to run an important errand before going back to the boardinghouse—a secret errand that couldn’t wait.
“I can’t come with you,” said Gwen, who knew all about the secret errand because she was Isabelle’s best friend. “I’ve got stupid dish duty tonight. See ya in the morning.” She wiped her runny nose on her sleeve, then disappeared into the crowd.
“See ya,” Isabelle called, zipping her yellow rain slicker all the way to her chin. Poor Gwen. Dish duty was never fun, though secret errands almost always were.
Clutching an empty water bottle, Isabelle hurried away from Runny Cove’s Magnificently Supreme Umbrella Factory, where she had spent the entire day standing at a conveyor belt pressing labels onto boxes. Not the way most ten-year-olds would choose to spend the day, but Isabelle had no choice. Even though the work left her fingertips raw and made the soles of her feet ache, she never complained. Her boring job was the only reason she could buy half a cheese sandwich and a rain slicker. Without the umbrella factory, Isabelle would have nothing.
She followed the gravel road that led from the factory to the village of Runny Cove. Raindrops drummed against the sides of her plastic hood, a sound so commonplace that she barely even noticed. It rained every day in Runny Cove. It had for as long as Isabelle could remember. Sometimes the drops were as fat as thumbprints; sometimes they were almost invisible, forming a veil of mist. Sometimes they beat down so hard that they stung Isabelle’s skin, while other times they dropped lazily from the sky like parachutists.
Because the clouds never parted in Runny Cove, the village was perpetually cast in a depressing shade of sludge—the same color as the gunky stuff that clogs up bathroom sinks. Never had Isabelle basked in the sun’s warmth or strolled in the moon’s light. Never had she known what it felt like to be completely dry. That was the cruel reality of Runny Cove and that is why no one ever moved there. Isabelle couldn’t blame them. Who would want to live in a gloomy place by the sea where it never stops raining, and where everyone’s skin is puckered and pale and covered in mold?
While most of the villagers chose to sit around and complain about the mud, acting all dreary about the rain as if it had seeped inside their skin and had drowned their spirits, Isabelle’s spirit refused to be extinguished, no matter how waterlogged it got. Ever heard the saying that if you’ve got lemons, you should make lemonade? Well, when you’ve got mud you might as well make mud pies, or mud forts, or mud slides. And that’s exactly what Isabelle and her friends did. A lowly substance, mud, but with the right outlook it can offer up endless possibilities.
While the rest of the workers headed into the village, Isabelle took a sharp turn off the road and started across the sand dunes. Dusk was falling, but like everyone else in Runny Cove, she was accustomed to dim light. Up and over the dunes she went, her mind fixated on her secret errand. She needed to get it done quickly so she could get back to Mama Lu’s Boardinghouse for supper.
Up and over, over and up she hurried, slowing only to cough. People who spend their days in damp undershirts and wet socks tend to get colds, which is the reason why most everyone in Runny Cove had a runny nose and a rib-splitting cough.
Though the crisp evening air tickled Isabelle’s congested lungs, she kept her pace until she reached the driftwood forest. The logs lay in chaotic piles, some with sharp jutting branches, others with rotten patches that could break a leg. Isabelle had never seen a tightrope walker but she resembled one as she held out her arms and tiptoed across, still clutching the empty bottle. She didn’t feel a bit scared, since she had ventured to the beach many times by herself to explore or collect treasures. Excitement drove her onward. Her errand meant doing something different, something interesting, and she was one of those people who always managed to find bits of interesting in places where other people never looked.
As she crossed the driftwood, she sang one of her little songs at just the right tempo to match her careful steps. She sang loudly because there was no one around to yell, “Hey kid! Stop making all that racket. Yer giving me a headache!” Here’s what she sang.
Beyond the town, beyond the mill
beyond the river, beyond the hill
lies the land of Nowhere
and Nowhere lies there still,
for no one goes to Nowhere
and no one ever will.
It was a song she had made up about the mysterious place of her birth. At least that’s what her Grandma Maxine had always told her whenever she had asked, “Where did I come from?”
“Is it far away?”
“I don’t know. No one knows.”
As much as Isabelle loved her grandmother, the lack of information drove her crazy. A person has the right to know where she comes from. It’s a perfectly reasonable request, not like asking for a new rain slicker when the old one only has a couple of holes. Gwen knew about her parents. She knew that her mother had died giving birth to her and that her father had died from a fever. It didn’t make being an orphan any easier but at least Gwen knew. Isabelle knew nothing.
“You’ve got to know something, Grandma. Think harder and you’ll remember.”
“It’s no use asking me so many questions, Isabelle. All I know is that I found you one stormy morning. Nothing else. Just you, lying on the doorstep without a stitch of clothing, screaming so loud you drowned out the wind and rain. It seemed like you just appeared out of thin air.”
“But I must have come from somewhere.”
“As far as I can tell you came from nowhere, so please stop asking.”
A girl who begins her life on a doorstep, without a note or clue of any kind, has a choice. She can believe that she was abandoned because no one wanted her, and she can feel like the most unimportant person in the world. Or she can believe, as Isabelle did, that because her origins were shrouded in mystery, that she must be an extra important person. A special person. A person like no other person.
For a secret birth is like a secret errand—sure to yield something interesting.
Isabelle reached the edge of the driftwood forest and, with a graceful jump, landed in the hard, wet sand that lay at the water’s edge. The cove formed a crescent as gray as the sky above, littered with the hulls of long-abandoned fishing boats. Creosote-covered pilings poked out of the water, all that remained of the docks that used to line the beach. Grandma Maxine had told her that the boats used to go out each morning and return each evening, overflowing with fish. But no one fished the cove anymore, not since the fish had gone away.
Isabelle twisted the cap off the empty bottle and waded into the water. As she submerged the bottle, air bubbles rose to the surface, bobbing between raindrops. When the bottle had filled, she recapped it and shoved it into her pocket. Her stomach growled. Mama Lu would be serving supper soon.
Her errand completed, Isabelle was about to start home when a roar rose above the rain’s drumming—a roar far too loud to be her stomach.
Something moved in the water where the cove met the sea. Isabelle pushed off her hood, trying to get a better view. The something was much bigger than she, and swimming toward her. She took a few steps backward as it moved closer. She’d never seen anything like it. Could it be dangerous?
She ran up the beach to the edge of the driftwood forest, where she watched, open-mouthed, as the large thing emerged from the shallow water. It was a creature of some sort, and it pulled its enormous, blubbery body onto the sand with a pair of front flippers. The strangest nose hung from the middle of its face, swaying back and forth as it heaved itself up the beach. She couldn’t see its mouth but imagined a vast row of sharp teeth. If it didn’t eat her alive, surely it would flatten her like a skipping stone. Terrified, she scrambled up some driftwood but lost her footing and fell back onto the sand.
With a burst of speed, the creature galloped up the beach and parked itself at Isabelle’s feet. She froze, remembering that the fishermen who had fished the cove long ago had believed in sea monsters that sank ships and ate the crew.
Hot breath seared Isabelle’s face. Large black eyes, surrounded by folds of skin, stared down at her. “Please don’t eat me,” she begged, squeezing her eyes shut. Being eaten alive wasn’t something she wanted to watch. She waited for deep, horrible pain. But a few moments passed and nothing happened. Slowly, she opened her eyes.
Still staring, the monster cocked its head. Raindrops rolled down skin that looked like rubber. It sniffed her hair with its long nose.
“Please, please don’t eat me,” Isabelle whimpered, scooting back against the driftwood pile.
It raised its nose and opened its mouth. Isabelle squealed and pushed against the wood, hoping to find a spot where she could disappear. But she was trapped. She was going to die without having said goodbye to her grandmother or to Gwen. She was about to become supper! “Help!” she cried, though she knew no one would hear.
The sea monster took a great breath, then sneezed. The force of the sneeze knocked Isabelle sideways. Slime shot out the end of the dangly nose and landed in Isabelle’s short hair. Disgusting! “Cover your nose when you sneeze,” Grandma Maxine always said. But Isabelle wasn’t about to correct a sea monster’s manners.
“You can sneeze on me as much as you’d like. Just please don’t eat me.” She pulled on her hood as the creature took another breath and sneezed again. This time, something else flew out of its nose and landed with a thunk in Isabelle’s lap.
The creature tapped its flipper impatiently and grunted, as if waiting for something. The rain beat harder. Isabelle peered out from under her hood. She didn’t know what to do. What could it possibly be waiting for?
“Bless you?” she whispered.
It continued to stare.
“Bless you two times?”
The nose reached forward and pointed at Isabelle’s lap. She grimaced, expecting to find a giant booger, but found, instead, a slime-covered red apple.
A real, honest-to-goodness apple.
No apples grew in Runny Cove or in the wetlands that lay outside the village. Apples occasionally showed up at the factory’s grocery store, but only Mr. Supreme’s assistants could afford to buy them. Isabelle had never tasted one. She had never even held one. She picked it up. It would cost an entire day’s wages to buy one half the size. The sea monster grunted again. “Oh, I’m sorry. Here.” She held it out. Should she stick the apple back up its nose?
To her amazement, the sea monster shook its head.
“Don’t you want it back?”
It shook its head again. Then, with a roar that vibrated Isabelle’s teeth, it turned and made its way back to the water. It hadn’t eaten her. It hadn’t flattened her. It had only sneezed on her. “THANK YOU!” she yelled, waving the apple.
It turned and nodded, its nose bouncing up and down. Then, it swam out of sight.
“Wow,” Isabelle whispered.
Other than being left on a doorstep, that was the most special thing that had ever happened to Isabelle. Even though slime coated her hair and face, and even though she had been scared half to death, she smiled. Gwen would never believe it. Wouldn’t Grandma Maxine be surprised? No one in Runny Cove had ever met a sea monster. No factory worker had ever been given an apple.
She checked to make certain that the water bottle was safe in one pocket and tucked the apple securely into another pocket. Then she climbed onto the driftwood pile and ran back toward the village, feeling extra, extra special.
Water sloshed against Isabelle’s boots as she ran down Boggy Lane. The cobblestone lane dipped into the lowest part of the village, so it was always flooded. As her hood bounced at the back of her neck, rain washed all the sea monster snot from her face and hair.
Old, battered boardinghouses lined Boggy Lane. Lights glowed from kitchen windows. Greasy odors wafted through cracks in the house boards, aggravating Isabelle’s hunger pains. She wondered if the apple would be edible after traveling inside a nose. She plucked it from her pocket and held it beneath a gushing rainspout. Bigger and shinier than any apple in the factory store, she could have eaten it right there, but then she’d have no proof of her adventure. Besides, something that wonderful had to be shared.
Boggy Lane took a sharp turn, then ended at Mama Lu’s Boardinghouse. A vacancy sign swayed in the window, pushed by the wind and rain. No one had moved to Runny Cove for as long as Isabelle could remember, but Mama Lu still insisted on advertising. Isabelle ran up the stone steps and threw herself against the front door, which swelled in particularly nasty weather and needed a good shove to open.
“Yer late!” Mama Lu hollered from the kitchen.
“Sorry,” Isabelle called, closing the door. Of course, she didn’t regret her trip to the beach, not one bit.
The entryway felt chilly, as usual. The sour smell of boiled cabbage hung in the air. A frying pan sat on the floor, collecting water that dripped from a seam in the wall. Isabelle slipped off her boots and placed them neatly at the end of the boot shelf. She removed her rain slicker and hung it on the rack next to the other slickers. She decided to leave the filled water bottle in her slicker’s pocket and get it after supper. The apple, however, was another matter. Mama Lu liked to snoop through pockets and while she’d have no interest in a bottle filled with seawater, if she found the apple she’d claim it for herself.
“This house belongs to me,” she often reminded her tenants. “So everything in it belongs to me, too.”
Isabelle tucked the apple into the waistband of her canvas pants. Her flannel shirt, a hand-me-down from another tenant, was four sizes too large, so it did a good job concealing the lump.
“Did ya check fer slugs?” Mama Lu bellowed. The boardinghouse’s proprietor despised slugs. In fact, she hated them so much that the mere act of seeing one drove her into a tizzy. Unfortunately, Runny Cove possessed more slugs than any other place on earth. The little gastropods bred in every damp nook and cranny the village had to offer. They gobbled up anything the villagers tried to grow, leaving trails of slime in their wake. If a slug wanted to move across town, it would attach itself to a boot or pant leg when a villager walked down the street, or drop from an eave to hitchhike on a hood or in someone’s hair. Mama Lu had decreed that anyone who brought a slug into her house would lose blanket privileges for a month. “Did ya check?”
In all her excitement, Isabelle had forgotten to check. “Yes, I checked,” she lied, quickly sliding her hands through her hair.
“I hate those slimy things,” Mama Lu complained from the kitchen. “I hate their quivery antennas and their squishy bodies.”
Isabelle entered the kitchen, where six tenants sat around a warped table, coughing and wheezing, sharing the same cold. Even though only two of the tenants were related by blood, everyone looked alike. In fact, most of Runny Cove’s villagers shared a similar appearance. Their skin, having never been exposed to the sun, was translucent, and their eyes were light blue. And every hair on every head was gray, even ten-year-old Isabelle’s hair. Some said that the dreary sky had fallen into their hair, but Isabelle’s grandmother said that everyone’s hair was gray because gray is the color of sadness.
In the boardinghouse, only Mama Lu looked different. She dyed her hair with an expensive paste that turned it as black as a beach rock. She had spending money, a luxury none of her tenants had. In exchange for most of their factory pay, the tenants got an uncomfortable twin bed, a cold breakfast, and a lukewarm supper.
Isabelle reached for a tray. “Sit down,” Mama Lu ordered. “Ya can feed yer precious granny when yer done.”
Isabelle squeezed in between Bert and Boris, the elderly toothless twins who lived in the basement. “Hello, Isabelle,” Bert whispered.
“Hello, Isabelle,” Boris whispered.
“Hello.” She liked to sit between the twins because they didn’t smell too bad, not like Mr. Limewig, who thought that with all the rain, he didn’t need to shower. The other tenants nodded, then, between coughs, slurped their soup. Mama Lu plunked Isabelle’s bowl and soupspoon onto the table.
“Yer a rude one, being so late,” Mama Lu said. “I’ve got better things to do than wait around fer you.”
“Sorry,” Isabelle said, knowing Mama Lu had nothing better to do.
“Sorry,” Mama Lu repeated in a whiny voice. “Sorry don’t mean nothing to my swollen feet.” She pointed to her feet, which were crammed into pink fuzzy slippers. Swollen or not, they sure looked enormous.
Isabelle dipped the wooden spoon into her bowl and sipped. The thin broth, a tasteless brew made from cabbage and carrots, was still a bit warm and it felt good going down. Isabelle would have voluntarily worked dish duty for just a dash of salt, but Mama Lu would let no one touch her salt. She considered salt to be a sacred weapon in her one-woman battle against the slugs of Runny Cove. She always carried a canister in her bathrobe pocket and would pull it out quick-draw style upon spotting a slug. It wasn’t a pretty sight when a slug got salted because the salt sucked all the moisture from the slug’s plump little body, leaving a puddle of goo. Isabelle hated it when Mama Lu salted slugs.
But that evening, Isabelle wasn’t thinking about slugs. I found an apple, I found an apple, I found an apple, she sang in her head.
Mama Lu tossed a basket of rock-hard biscuits onto the table, then went to powder her nose. Isabelle pulled the basket close, took one of the biscuits, and quickly warmed it between her palms. No one understood why, but Isabelle’s hands had always been warmer than everyone else’s hands. She never needed mittens, a luxury that few could afford. In winter, when the rain turned to hail and the front doorknob froze, she simply gripped the knob until it thawed. When her grandmother’s arthritic knee acted up, she wrapped her hands around the knee until the muscle relaxed. But biscuit-warming could only be done in Mama Lu’s absence, so Isabelle hurriedly warmed another and another, passing them down the table.
Mama Lu returned, her nose all powdery, and climbed onto her observation chair—a tall chair with ladders on each side that sat at the head of the kitchen table. The mysterious words LIFEGUARD ON DUTY had been painted on the back a long time ago. The chair creaked as Mama Lu heaved her large thighs up each rung, pausing halfway to catch her breath. At the top, she adjusted her blue bathrobe, then sat down with a loud “hmphhh.”
From her perch, Mama Lu kept an eye on her tenants in case one of them tried to steal something. Bert had told Isabelle that sitting higher than everyone else made Mama Lu feel important. Being the only person in Runny Cove found on a doorstep made Isabelle feel important.
“Which one of ya stupid dunderheads is going to bring me my cheese?” Mama Lu asked, her two chins jiggling. “Get a move on. I’m starvin’ to death.”
Isabelle hoped it wasn’t her turn, because if she had to climb that ladder, the apple might slip out from under her waistband. But to her relief, Mrs. Wormbottom climbed the ladder and handed up a platter that held slices of yellow and white cheese, some with holes, some with crusty rinds, and some with specks of blue mold. As Mrs. Wormbottom returned to her bland soup, Mama Lu began feasting.
“Moos gmph sumpin interumbling to smph?” Mama Lu asked with a mouth full of cheese. Even though they couldn’t understand the words, everyone at the table knew the question because every night Mama Lu asked, “Who’s got something interesting to say?” It was a dreaded question. Having something interesting to say was as rare in Runny Cove as an apple. For most of the tenants, each day yielded the exact same events so the days blended together, forming one gigantic blob of uninteresting. Since Isabelle often managed to find bits of interesting, it usually fell upon her shoulders to answer the dreaded question.
But on this night she held her tongue. No way was she going to tell Mama Lu about the apple.
“Rain came down extra hard today,” Mr. Wormbottom said. “Sprang a leak in my window.”
Mama Lu scowled and pointed a floppy slice of white cheese at him. “Ya wouldn’t be complaining about yer accommodations, would ya?”
Mrs. Wormbottom gulped. “No, he’s not complaining. Not complaining one bit.”
“I’m just making conversation,” Mr. Wormbottom said. “Interesting conversation.”
“Pathetic conversation, that’s what yer making. I don’t want to hear no more about the rain. In fact, anyone who talks about the rain ever again will lose spoon privileges,” she snarled. “One of ya morons better come up with something interesting.”
All eyes turned toward Isabelle.
She sank low on the bench, burying her nose in her soup bowl. No way.
“Don’t anyone got anything to say? Yer the boringest tenants in the whole world. Bunch of dimwits, the whole lot of ya.”
“Got a rock stuck in the heel of my boot on the way home,” Mr. Limewig said, widening his eyes hopefully.
“Rock?” Mama Lu cried. “What’s interesting about a rock?”
“Found a mushroom growing under my bed,” Mrs. Limewig said.
Like slugs, mushrooms cropped up all over Runny Cove—along the road, in ditches, under kitchen sinks. But only Isabelle grew them between her toes and no one knew why. And while most everyone in Runny Cove had to deal with itchy mold patches, Isabelle grew more mold patches than anyone else. She had a tendency to grow lichen on her scalp, as well.
“Mushroom? There’s nothing interesting about a mushroom.” Mama Lu’s face turned red. “What about you?” She pointed at Isabelle. “Ya always got something to say. Ya think yer so special just because ya got found on a doorstep and the rest of us didn’t.” She shoved two cubes of orange cheese into her mouth. “My yus ya mate?”
Isabelle tried to disappear behind Bert’s damp sleeve.
Mama Lu swallowed. “I said, why was ya late? Was ya playing in the mud again? Making stupid muddy things? Was ya poking around like yer always doing, looking here, looking there? Huh? Where was ya?”
The tenants stopped slurping. Only drumming rain and congested breathing could be heard. Isabelle strained to find a good answer. Say the wrong thing and Mama Lu could withhold tea or toilet paper privileges, or put Isabelle on all-night slug patrol. “I went to the beach,” Isabelle replied.
“What?” Mama Lu leaned forward. The chair creaked and swayed. “What did ya say?” Boris gently patted Isabelle’s arm, encouraging her to continue.
“I said I went to the beach. The beach is very interesting. Did you know that there are bugs that hop in the sand?”
Mama Lu scowled. “Why would anyone go to the beach? Only a brainless half-wit would go to the beach. There’s nothing at the beach.” She raised her bushy eyebrows. “Did ya find something at the beach?”
Isabelle shook her head. “No. Not a thing. Nothing at all. Just bugs in the sand.”
“Them bugs better stay in the sand. I don’t want no bugs in this house.” Mama Lu picked a bit of cheese rind from her teeth, then slammed her fist on the armrest. “Is it too much to ask fer a little conversation? I slave away all day fer the lot of ya and all I ask is fer a little bit of interesting conversation.”
Isabelle couldn’t imagine Mama Lu slaving away. In fact, she had never seen her do any work besides throwing cabbage into a pot and boiling it.
“I demand that ya tell me something interesting. Something I’ve never heard before. If ya don’t, then there’ll be no food fer yer precious granny tonight.”
Once again, all eyes turned Isabelle’s way. Her grandmother couldn’t go without food because she was sick and weak. Isabelle would have to reveal her secret. She placed her hands over the lump in her shirt. “I… I…”
Just then, the front door burst open.
Gertrude Bolt, owner of Gertrude’s Boardinghouse, stumbled into the kitchen, waving her hands as if they were on fire. She hadn’t bothered to put on a slicker, so her green bathrobe sparkled with droplets. “Mama Lu, Mama Lu,” she shrieked. “Wait ’til you hear, wait ’til you hear.”
Relieved, Isabelle released a big breath. Hopefully, Gertrude’s interruption would save her from having to reveal her secret.
The observation chair creaked as Mama Lu leaned over its armrest. “Did ya check fer slugs? I ain’t listening ’til ya check fer slugs.”
Gertrude shook her bathrobe. “No slugs.”
“Then what is it, Gertie?” Mama Lu wrung her hands excitedly. “It must be something good to get ya out at this late hour. Is it something good?”
“They’re thieves. That’s what they are. Thieves.”
“Thieves?” Mama Lu smiled, her upper lip stretching across her crooked teeth. She and Gertrude had built a friendship around the fact that they loved to say bad things about other people. “Now that sounds interesting.”
It does sound interesting, Isabelle thought.
“I’m coming right down.” The tenants averted their eyes as Mama Lu began her descent. No one wanted to see her enormous striped bloomers. When she reached the floor, the chair sighed with relief. “So, Gertie? Who is these thieves?”
Gertrude frowned at the sickly tenants. “Do we have to talk in front of them? Let’s sit in your parlor.”
Mama Lu led Gertrude into the parlor, where a weak fire burned. The damp peat sputtered and sizzled. She and Gertrude sat on the only couch while the tenants tried their best to stifle their coughs so they could eavesdrop. Fortunately, both of the landladies spoke in obnoxiously loud voices.
Gertrude cleared her throat. “You know my young tenant, that rotten little girl named Gwen?”
Isabelle sat up straight, pursing her lips angrily. How dare she call Gwen, her best friend, rotten? A person could call Gwen sad, on account of her being an orphan, and could even call her gloomy, on account of her having to work in a factory. But rotten was totally unfair.
“Yes, I know the one. Always has that snotty nose. What has she done? Has she done something wicked?”
“She brought home an apple,” Gertrude said. “A red apple.”
Isabelle nearly knocked her soup bowl over. She wrapped her arms around her precious lump. How could this be?
“An apple?” Mama Lu asked. “How could she afford such a thing?”
“She said it fell from the sky.”
Gertrude raised her voice. “She said it fell from the sky. Said a black bird dropped it on her head. I think she’s lying. That’s what I think.”
Mama Lu snorted. “ ’Course she’s lying. A bird can’t carry no apple. She stole it. No doubt about it. Where’s the apple now?”
“I took it,” Gertrude said proudly. “Put it in my icebox. If it’s stolen property, the authorities should be told.” The authorities boiled down to one person—Mr. Earl Hench, the umbrella factory’s security guard and Gertrude’s boyfriend.
Boris leaned close to Isabelle. “Do you think Gwen stole the apple?” he asked quietly.
Isabelle shook her head. “No way.” If a sea monster could carry an apple, then so could a bird. But how strange that after a lifetime without apples, she and Gwen had each gotten one on the same day.
The tenants tilted their heads as the parlor conversation continued.
“She’s a thief. They’re all thieves. Why do ya think I sit in that chair?” Mama Lu asked Gertrude. “So I can keep an eye on my tenants. Which reminds me…” She stomped back into the kitchen and quickly counted the soupspoons. “Don’t think fer one minute that just because I’m in the parlor ya numb-headed fools can steal from me.”
The tenants, whose heads were slightly numb from the cold, but who weren’t thieves or fools, didn’t defend themselves. It would only result in double dishwashing duty or loss of towel privileges. They put up with the abuse because they couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.
“Mama Lu,” Gertrude called from the couch. “There’s more, I tell you. Much more.”
“More?” Mama Lu waddled back to the parlor. “Do tell, Gertie.”
“Do you know that boy who lives with his father on Dripping Alley? The ugly boy with the birthmark on his cheek? He came home with an apple too. I know because my boyfriend, Earl Hench, saw him carrying it and confiscated it on account of it was stolen.”
Isabelle couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Leonard was the only boy in Runny Cove with a birthmark on his cheek. He sat at lunch break with Gwen and Isabelle. Being the only ten-year-olds in the factory, they tended to stick together. “He said that he was walking home when he saw an orange cat sleeping in the alley. When he tried to catch the cat it ran off but guess what it had been sleeping on?”
The tenants looked at one another and silently mouthed, an apple.
“Well? Can you guess?” Gertrude asked.
“Course I can guess. I’m not stupid.” Mama Lu cleared her throat. “But… but ya go ahead and tell me anyway.”
“He told Earl Hench, my boyfriend, that the cat had been sleeping on the apple. I think it’s another lie.”
“ ’Course it’s a lie. There ain’t no cats in Runny Cove, haven’t been since I was a girl.”
“She’s right,” Mr. Wormbottom whispered. “No cats since I was a boy.”
Isabelle had never seen a cat, but she knew what they looked like because her grandmother had described them. Three apples to three friends on the same day. Nothing this exciting had happened in Runny Cove since Mr. Philbert had gotten lost in the fog. Talk about interesting.
“I think they’re conspiring,” Gertrude stated. “Starting up a ring of thieves, that’s what I think. First it’s apples, then it’s our jewelry, then it’s your cheese.”
Isabelle wanted to shout out, You’re wrong! But such a statement would result in some kind of terrible punishment. Who cared what Gertrude Bolt and Mama Lu thought, anyway? Isabelle knew that her friends weren’t thieves. She could hardly wait to see them at the factory tomorrow so they could share their stories. How slowly the night would pass.
Gertrude had more to say. “But when my boyfriend, Earl Hench, tried to take a bite of the apple, it turned all black and powdery like fireplace ashes. But the one I took from Gwen is good, all shiny and red.”
“You know, Gertie,” Mama Lu said greedily, “why don’t ya go and get it and we’ll bake it here. Nothing better than a baked apple, all golden and juicy.”
Isabelle clenched her fists. That wasn’t fair. Gwen should get to eat the apple. The landladies had more food than they needed. She’d definitely save some of her apple for her friends and give it to them at the factory tomorrow.
“Finish yer dinners!” Mama Lu hollered, sticking her dyed head back into the kitchen. No tenant was allowed to linger at the table after dinner or mingle in the parlor, so they wandered off to their rooms.
Isabelle was eager to get upstairs. She took a tray from the counter, then ladled the last bit of soup into a bowl and placed it onto the tray. She grabbed the last roll and spoon and placed them onto the tray as well. The front door creaked open. “Hurry back with yer apple,” Mama Lu called. The front door closed. Isabelle moved quickly, filling a jug with tap water. After making certain that the apple was secure under her waistband, she picked up the tray and headed toward the stairs, but found Mama Lu blocking her path.
“Stop right there, Miss I’m So Special. What do ya know about them apples?” Her breath was as sharp as her cheddar dinner.
A cough tickled Isabelle’s chest but she held it back. One cough and the apple might drop. Holding the tray over her hidden treasure, she smiled sweetly. “I don’t know anything.”
“But they’re yer friends, ain’t they?” Mama Lu adjusted her bathrobe’s belt. “I seen ya walking with that runny-nosed girl every morning. And I seen ya talking to that ugly-faced boy. What do ya know? Ya been stealing apples too?”
“No.” The apple slipped a bit. Isabelle pushed out her tummy to trap it against the waistband. But, unlike Mama Lu, Isabelle’s tummy was as flat as a factory conveyor belt. The apple slipped again. If it rolled down her pant leg she’d be in big trouble. She tried to step around her landlady.
“Not so fast. What was ya doing with a bottle of dirty water in yer slicker?” Mama Lu asked, holding up Isabelle’s bottle.
Isabelle couldn’t tell her the real reason she had collected the seawater, the reason she had been collecting it each week for the past few months. She’d get punished if Mama Lu knew what the water was for. So she lied. “It’s salty. I keep it in my room to pour on slugs if they try to get in through the window.”
“Oh.” Mama Lu scowled, her eyebrows knotting into a single bushy clump.
The hidden apple slipped a bit more. “Please, Mama Lu. My grandma needs her supper.”
Mama Lu plunked the bottle of water onto the tray. “Yer granny had better get out of that bed soon. This ain’t no hospital, ya know. She’s lazy, that’s what she is.”
Isabelle narrowed her eyes and glared at Mama Lu. “She’s sick, not lazy. And I pay the rent, don’t I?” She immediately regretted her bitter tone, but Mama Lu had made her so mad she wanted to dump the seawater all over the landlady’s swollen head.
“Ya’d better keep paying if ya want to keep that room.”
Gertrude rushed back into the house, cradling Gwen’s apple as if it were a precious infant. Mama Lu pushed Isabelle aside. As the landladies greedily smacked their lips and headed into the kitchen, Isabelle started up the stairs that led to the second floor. But halfway up she couldn’t hold back the cough any longer. With the expelled breath, the apple rolled down her pant leg and landed at her feet. Thud. She grimaced, expecting Mama Lu to holler, “It’s mine!”
Fortunately, the landladies were arguing over cooking temperature so they didn’t hear the thud. What luck! Isabelle scooped up the apple and made her escape.
Isabelle loved the fourth-floor bedroom that she shared with Grandma Maxine. Certainly the room had a few problems. The old shake roof hadn’t been patched since Papa Lu’s death five years ago and the walls had been built without insulation. The climb up the three flights was steep, requiring strong legs. And the climb back down to the second-floor bathroom could be treacherous, especially if Isabelle or her grandmother needed to use the bathroom during the night.
But Isabelle and her grandmother had endured all of those hardships because the uppermost room in Mama Lu’s Boardinghouse came with an extra special bonus feature—for as long as Isabelle could remember, Mama Lu hadn’t been able to heave herself all the way to the fourth floor. On three occasions she had almost made it. “I’m having a heart attack,” she had cried, sweat pouring from her as if she had sprung leaks. “Lord have mercy, my heart can’t take it.” It seemed the only climbing she could manage was the ladder to her observation chair. Much to Isabelle and Grandma Maxine’s delight, the fourth floor remained Mama Lu–free.
Isabelle hid her apple beneath a ratty napkin before she stepped onto the second-floor landing. The Wormbottoms and the twins stood in line outside the bathroom.
“Hurry up, Limewig, and do your business,” Mr. Wormbottom said, pounding on the door. “It’s cold out here and you’re keeping me from my bed.”
“Can’t rush these things,” Mr. Limewig replied from behind the door.
“You want me to help you with that tray?” Bert asked.
“I can manage,” Isabelle said. She wanted to share the apple with Grandma Maxine before anyone else saw it. It would be the first time she had ever been able to give her grandmother a special treat.
Boris pulled half a dinner roll from his pocket and placed it on Isabelle’s tray. “Saved that for Maxine,” he said with a shy smile.
“That’s so sweet.” Isabelle stood on tiptoe and gave him a quick kiss on his pale, wrinkled cheek. Small acts of kindness were all the tenants had. Kindness kept their hearts from turning stone cold like Mama Lu’s and kept their spirits from washing down the storm drain. Isabelle vowed to save an apple slice for Boris and Bert.
Up the stairs Isabelle went. Grandma Maxine used to climb the stairs with her but over the last few months the old woman’s cough had steadily worsened. First, the trek to the factory had become too difficult. Then the trek up and down the stairs. Then she hadn’t been able to get out of bed. As the weeks had passed, Grandma Maxine ate less and slept longer. Isabelle had taken extra shifts at the factory to cover the lost wages and she had cared for her grandmother as best she could. She loved Grandma Maxine with her entire heart and she couldn’t bear the thought that one day the old woman would die.
She just needs more time, Isabelle told herself. Old people need more time to heal. That’s all.
Isabelle reached the fourth floor and hurried into the bedroom. Grandma Maxine lay beneath a thin, striped quilt, made from old socks. Her chest rose and fell in steady snoring. Isabelle quietly placed the tray on the bedside table. She held the apple up to the room’s single bulb. The light reflected gloriously on the shiny skin. Did it come from far away? she wondered. Do apples grow in Nowhere?
“Hello, Isabelle,” Grandma Maxine said, startling her.
Isabelle tucked the apple under the napkin. “Hello, Grandma. Are you feeling any better?”
“Not really. But at least it’s nice and toasty in here.” The bedroom didn’t have a fireplace or a heater but over the last few weeks the temperature had begun to rise. “I think it’s the moss carpet that’s keeping it so warm.”
The moss carpet was a recent addition to the room on the fourth floor. It had started with a simple clump of dark green moss that Isabelle had found on her factory locker. For some odd reason, hers was the only locker that grew moss. “Clean that locker!” Mr. Supreme’s assistants always yelled. But the moss always came back. Isabelle loved the way it felt when she brushed it across her cheek, so she had carried a clump to the boardinghouse where she had placed it on her windowsill, beneath a steady drip of water. The next morning the moss had doubled in size, and after a week it had grown down the wall. In two weeks’ time it had covered the entire floor. Amazingly, the moss absorbed all the nasty roof leaks yet it never felt wet.
Excerpted from Fortune's Magic Farm by Selfors, Suzanne Copyright © 2009 by Selfors, Suzanne. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.