The Kneebone Boy: Excerpts from a Novel

Ellen Potter

Chapter 1

In which we meet the Hardscrabbles,
unearth a triceratops bone, and begin to like
Lucia even more

There were three of them. Otto was the oldest, and the oddest. Then there was Lucia, who wished something interesting would happen. Last of all was Max, who always thought he knew better. They lived in a small town in England called Little Tunks. There is no Big Tunks. One Tunks was more than enough for everyone. It was the most uninteresting town imaginable, except for the fact that the Such Fun Chewing Gum factory was on its west end, so that the air almost always smelled of peppermint. When the wind blew just right you could think you had been sucked down a tube of toothpaste.

I was the one voted to tell this story because I read the most novels, so I know how a story should be told. Plus I’m very observant and have a nice way of putting things; that’s what my teacher Mr. Dupuis told me. I can’t tell you which Hardscrabble I am— Otto, Lucia, or Max— because I’ve sworn on pain of torture not to. They said it’s because the story belongs to all three of us, and I suppose they’re right, but it seems unfair since I’m doing all the work. No one can stop you from guessing though.

The story will begin on a sparkling, sun-drenched afternoon in July. I think that’s a good time to start because everything is so nice and pleasant at that time, with flowers blooming and birds singing and all that rubbish. You have to start nice and pleasant before you get to the more heartthumping bits, in which the weather turns nasty and so do the people. And also, the story actually did start on a sparkling, sun-drenched afternoon in July, so I wouldn’t be lying.

On a sparkling, sun-drenched afternoon in July, when the flowers were blooming and the birds were singing, Otto and Lucia were walking home from school arguing about what they were going to do when they grew up.

“We’ll open up a tattoo parlour in Little Tunks,” Otto said.

“Well, that’s fine for you. You’ll be the one drawing skeletons and tigers on people’s bums,” said Lucia, who incidentally looked exactly like her name. If you don’t know what I mean, just picture long, thick, black hair that needs loads of shampoo to make a lather; a delicate, proud nose; and beneath two unapologetically thick eyebrows, dark eyes that were endlessly searching for something interesting to happen. If you think she sounds suspiciously heroine-like, be advised that she has flaws. She had a terrible sense of direction, fought quite a lot with Max, and was on the short side.

“I won’t tattoo bums,” Otto said staunchly.

“You would if someone paid you loads of money,” Lucia declared.

“Not even then,” he said.

“Well . . . you would if the Queen came in and asked to have her bum tattooed,” Lucia said, since she hated to lose an argument.

Otto and Lucia both silently contemplated this for a few moments.

“I might,” Otto admitted, “just to say that I did.”

Here’s what Otto looked like, because I know you’re going to wonder pretty soon: He was a tall, thin, slipperyjointed thirteen-year-old. His posture was appalling. His shoulders humped and his head drooped down, so that he always looked like he was up to no good. He had shiny, pale blond hair that always swung over his pale blue eyes. Wrapped twice around his neck was a long black cloth scarf embroidered with twisting oak leaves in silver thread. He wore the scarf all the time, in winter and summer. Even to bed. His front tooth was chipped, due to an incident in which he was up to no good.

The other very important thing you should know about Otto is that he didn’t speak. I know I’ve already written that Otto spoke to Lucia, and it’s not a lie really. He spoke with his hands, using a sign language that he and Lucia had devised long ago, after he suddenly stopped speaking at the age of eight. Their younger brother, Max, understood quite a bit of it, because he was fairly clever and extremely nosy; their father had tried very hard to decipher it but rarely could. The teachers never understood him at all but they didn’t make a fuss over it. Truth be told, they were a little bit afraid of Otto. Most people in Little Tunks were.

From here on in, when I write “Otto said” you’ll understand that he was signing the words with his hands. Lucia, on the other hand, usually spoke to him out loud. He could hear perfectly well, after all.

“And anyway,” Lucia said, frowning, “what am I supposed to do at the tattoo parlour?”

“You can console the people who are crying and mop up the blood,” Otto answered promptly.

“Oh, that’s appealing.” Lucia puffed out her nostrils. It was a lovely gesture of contempt that she used quite often. “And anyway, I don’t think there’s much blood involved if you do it properly.”

They travelled through the narrow, winding streets, passing the brick terrace houses, the town park with its small pond and its three bad-tempered swans, and the sweet shop, which was owned by the Pakistani man who gave you back your change in little coin towers, the biggest coins on the bottom. Occasionally, they walked by other kids, also on their way home from school. The kids nodded at Otto and Lucia warily, but none of them stopped to toss them a friendly word, or even a filthy one. As a rule, no one in Little Tunks meddled with the Hardscrabble children. This was 75 percent due to the suspicious disappearance of their mother several years before, 20 percent due to the fact that the people in Little Tunks thought that the Hardscrabbles were strange, and 5 percent due to the Hardscrabble children— the two eldest, at least— being happiest in each other’s company.

“Well, I say we buy a fully rigged ship and sail around the Pacific Rim. We’ll navigate by the Orion constellation, and we’ll search for people who’ve been shipwrecked on islands, then rescue them,” Lucia said. (I’m beginning to think that you are pronouncing Lucia’s name as though it were Lucy with an a at the end of it. That’s wrong. You pronounce it Lu-CHEE-a. Say it a few times out loud and you’ll forget about Lucy-a.)

“You won’t need to navigate by the Orion constellation,” Otto said. “You can use radar equipment.”

“Yes, but maybe I’ll choose to navigate by the Orion constellation.”

“And people generally don’t get shipwrecked on desert islands anymore,” Otto said.

“I know that,” Lucia said, her nostrils puffing again, although not very widely since she hadn’t really thought of that. “But back in the old days, ladies travelled on those ships sometimes. If they got shipwrecked on an island with everyone else, don’t you think they might eventually have children? And then their children might have children, and then there might be a whole pack of them by now, living on seaweed and mud, just waiting for someone to come rescue them. Imagine how excited they’d be to see our white sails fluttering on the horizon.” Lucia’s glittering black eyes were now fixed on the horizon of Little Tunks, which consisted of some grimy terrace-house roofs, the Such Fun Chewing Gum factory’s chimneys pumping out peppermint smoke, and a cow pasture beyond that. “After we rescued them, we’d be on all the telly news shows and they’d put up plaques about us on park benches.”

She glanced over at Otto. He’d shoved his hands in his pockets and looked markedly unimpressed. She frowned, considered, then added, “Of course, it’s likely that there’d be some strange deformities among the stranded people. Inbreeding being such a problem.”

Beneath his overgrown hair, his pale, interested eyes slid toward his sister. “What kind of deformities?”

“Oh, children with hair growing on their faces, people with twelve toes. Like that.”

Otto was an avid collector of the strange and unusual. In fact, he hoped one day to open a museum of abnormalities right in Little Tunks, but he needed to enlarge his collection first. Thus far, he owned three specimens: a two-headed cornsnake; a one-eyed frog; and a lobster with an extra claw on one side, all of which he’d purchased from a catalogue.

“Well,” Otto said, “that’s all right then. But I still think a tattoo parlour is better.”

Suddenly Otto stopped walking. His body stiffened and his hand reflexively yanked his scarf tighter around his neck, something he always did when he was nervous. Lucia looked at him questioningly, then followed his gaze across the street. A thin woman with a cap of thick grey hair was prodding at a small object on the sidewalk with a stick.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Lucia hissed. She grabbed Otto by the elbow and quickened their pace. But it was no use. Mrs. Carnival had spotted them.

“Hoo! Hoo, Hardscrabbles!” Mrs. Carnival called to them, waving her stick.

Ignoring her was no good, they knew. They had tried it before. She would hunt them down clear across town if need be.

Reluctantly, they crossed the road while Mrs. Carnival waited, tapping the stick against the pavement. Her eyes, which were the exact color of bananas when they go thoroughly rotten, fixed on them impatiently.

“Come on, don’t drag your feet, Hardscrabbles! Stand up straight, Otto, I’ve told you a hundred times not to walk like a baboon. You may act the part of the village idiot but there’s no need to walk like one!”

Lucia opened her mouth to shoot back an angry response, but Otto stopped her with a quick shake of his head. He was right, of course. It was no use arguing with Mrs. Carnival. She would always have the last word, and besides, they had to stay at her home several times a year. It wasn’t a good idea to get on her bad side.

As Lucia and Otto came close, Mrs. Carnival turned her attention back to the object on the ground.

“Get rid of this thing,” she demanded, nudging it distastefully with the tip of her stick. “I don’t want to touch it, and it’s spoiling the street.”

It was a robin, tiny and plump and lying horribly still. Otto knelt down next to it. Its thin eyelids were closed except for the tiniest slit, through which a still-bright dark eye gleamed.

Otto shook his hair to the side in order to see better, and with one finger he gently touched the bird’s small russet chest.

“Is it dead?” Lucia asked Otto.

He shook his head no.

“Well, it should be if it had any sense! Flew into my window, the nitwit,” Mrs. Carnival said. “What are you doing down there, Otto? I asked you to get rid of it, not groom it! Oh, get out of the way, I’ll kill it myself.” And she lifted her stick in order to bring the pointed end down on the little bird’s chest.

Swiftly, Otto slid his hand beneath the little bird and scooped it up before Mrs. Carnival could touch it. He wrapped his scarf around it gently and cradled it against his chest.

“Ridiculous boy,” Mrs. Carnival muttered, shaking her head. “Remember to wash that scarf afterwards,” she called
to Otto as he and Lucia walked away. “That bird is certainly diseased. I won’t have you staying at my house if you catch something from it.”

“As though that’s punishment,” Lucia said, almost loud enough for Mrs. Carnival to hear. But not quite. Mrs. Carnival was the only person who was willing to take care of them when their father went on his trips abroad. The Hardscrabbles didn’t like her but they needed her. Or Dad felt they did anyway, though I’m sure they were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves.

Otto cupped his hand over the small lump under his scarf as he and Lucia passed through the heart of town and then turned up a lonely street whose broken pavement tilted this way and that. On either side of the road were a few houses in moderate states of disrepair. Their own house was at the very end of the street, a ramshackle butter yellow house with a wild- looking garden in the front. Ruffled pink and white roses spilled giddily every which way, blue lobelia carpeted the ground, and gangly lilies stretched up toward the sun, their lemon-colored petals unfurled. Arched over the brick path leading toward the house was a rickety arbour that was thatched with bright purple clematis.

A black-and-white cat named Esmeralda was sunning herself on the path, but when she saw Otto and Lucia approaching she popped up and bolted out of the garden and across the road. She wasn’t their cat anyway. She was only one of the many street cats that hung around their house. The cats came when their mother had still lived with them and they still kept coming after she was gone. Their mother didn’t believe in keeping animals, Dad told them, any more than she believed in keeping humans. Creatures stayed as long as they needed to stay, she had said, and when it was time for them to leave, you just had to tip your hat and wish them well.

Ironically, though, the cats never thought it was time to leave the Hardscrabble house. It was really as if they were hanging around waiting for Tess Hardscrabble to return. Consequently, as Lucia and Otto approached the house, they startled six other cats out of the depths of the garden. A seventh, a big fat tabby, had draped itself in front of the door and would not move, so they had to step over him.

Inside the hallway, Otto and Lucia dropped their schoolbags and headed directly to the kitchen, just as they always did, but they stopped short at the entrance. Sitting at the kitchen table was a chubby red-haired girl they’d never seen before. In front of her was a large bowl, into which their younger brother, Max, was scooping chocolate ice cream from the carton. He stopped when he saw Otto and Lucia, and his face grew a little pink.

“Who’s this?” Lucia demanded.

“Her name is Brenda. She’s new at school, moved here all the way from Loughborough, and doesn’t know a soul, so I thought wouldn’t it be a good thing for her to come over.” Max said this very quickly, and there was a pointed tone to his voice when he said that Brenda was new at school.

What followed was a long awkward silence, during which Otto slouched even more than usual and cradled the robin closer to his chest. Lucia flashed an irritated glance towards Max then turned her dark eyes on Brenda. Her expression was stern but kind.

“Did Max tell you that he has a time machine in the basement?” Lucia asked Brenda.

The girl shook her head while Max hastily plopped another scoop of ice cream in her bowl.

“Did he tell you he has a pair of llamas in the backyard?” Lucia persisted.

Brenda shook her head, but her eyes flitted to the window that faced the backyard.

“No, Brenda, there aren’t any llamas there,” Lucia said. “Nor time machines. Nor anything else that Max might have told you. Incidentally, what did he tell you to make you come here?”

Brenda looked down at her bowl of ice cream wistfully, as though she sensed that she was not going to have a chance to eat it.

“Why don’t you mind your own business, Lucia,” Max said, scooping out the last bit of ice cream from the container.

Lucia ignored him and kept her black eyes on Brenda, who was beginning to squirm. “Well?” Lucia demanded.

“He told me he’d found a brontosaurus bone in the garden,” Brenda said. Then she looked at Max. “Was that a lie?”

Lucia snorted. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, of course it was a lie! I’m surprised a girl your age would believe such rubbish. I honestly think kids are getting stupider by the year.” She murmured this last bit to Otto.

Brenda frowned over at Max, who quickly turned his back to grab a container of milk from the fridge.

“Can I eat the ice cream, at least?” Brenda asked Lucia.

“You don’t have to ask her permission, you know,” Max said, placing a glass of milk in front of Brenda. “She’s
not the parent.”

The real, actual parent walked into the kitchen just then. He didn’t look much like a real, actual parent. Casper Hardscrabble was a tall, thin, bespectacled man with curly dark hair down to the base of his neck and a grizzled, unshaven face. His eyebrows were thick, like Lucia’s, but his were the scowling type. Had he plucked them, he might have looked more friendly to his neighbours. He would have resembled a shy, rumpled college professor, and his neighbours might not have thought the awful things that they thought about him. But he wasn’t the type to pluck them, so there’s nothing to talk about really.

Oh, and he was wearing yellow pyjamas.

“You’re new,” Casper said to Brenda.

“She was Max’s idea,” Lucia muttered.

Casper looked at Brenda’s bowl of ice cream, then at his youngest child, who was now sitting across from Brenda, pretending to be engrossed in smashing the lumps of sugar in the sugar bowl with the back of a spoon.

“I see you’ve finished off the ice cream,” Casper said, glancing at the empty ice cream carton on the kitchen counter.

Brenda squirmed a little.

“Well done,” Casper said. “I was just about to throw it out to make room for the triceratops bone.”

They all looked at him with puzzled expressions.

“What?” he said, gazing back at them. “You have to put dinosaur bones somewhere before the museum comes to fetch them, don’t you? A freezer is the best place. Keeps them nice and fresh.”

“You never said anything about having a dinosaur bone, Dad.” Lucia narrowed her eyes at him.

“Not to you, maybe,” Casper said. “But I told Max all about it this morning, didn’t I?”

Max stared at him for a moment, then nodded.

“Really? Then why did he tell Brenda it was a brontosaurus bone?” Lucia persisted.

“Well, that’s what I thought it was at first,” Casper said. “But I looked it up afterwards. It’s definitely triceratops.”

“Can I see it?” Brenda asked, already making a fair sized dent in her ice cream.

“Oh, yes, let’s all see it,” Lucia said, throwing a dry look at Max, who had wilted in his chair.

“All right. Wait right here. I’ll go get it.” Casper opened the kitchen door and walked out into the garden. All the kids went to the window to watch what he would do next.

“My dad is never home at this hour,” Brenda said. “Doesn’t your dad work?”

“Sure, he does. He just works at home,” Max explained. “And every so often he goes away.”

“Where?” Brenda asked.

Casper was now circling the garden in his bare feet, staring hard at the ground.

“All different places. The Philippines, Africa, Indonesia,” Max said. “He paints portraits of kings and queens and empresses. Not the famous ones, though. The ones he paints have been booted off their thrones.”

Brenda scrutinized him doubtfully, then turned to Lucia. “Is he lying?”

“No, he’s actually telling the truth this time,” Lucia replied distractedly, her eyes fixed on her father. Casper was kneeling down, frog fashion, and was clawing up the earth. It flew backwards between his legs.

“Do you get to go with him?” Brenda asked.

Max shook his head. “He’s too busy when he’s there to look after us. And we’d miss too much school.” He added in a grim voice, “We stay with a lady in town.”

“What about your mum?” Brenda asked, looking around suddenly as though their mum might be hiding in the room

“Haven’t you heard about our mum?” Lucia asked.

Brenda shook her head.

Max flashed a warning look at his sister, which Lucia completely ignored.

“She’s dead,” Lucia said.

“She’s gone missing,” said Max.

“Dead,” Lucia said.

“Missing,” Max said. “Dad says she’s missing.”

“He just says that to make us feel better. She’s dead.”

Now Brenda appeared completely confused. Her eyes darted around nervously between Lucia and Max, stopping briefly to look at Otto, who would not look back at her.

A scurrying movement out the window made them turn their attention to Casper again. He was down on all fours, one hand pawing around the hole he’d dug in the ground. He pulled something out, something largish, and began brushing the dirt off of it. Then he hopped up very nimbly and trotted back to the house. The front of his pyjamas was filthy and there were bits of soil in his hair and on his spectacles, but when he entered the kitchen, he held up the dirt-encrusted object triumphantly.

“Found it!” he cried. “I put it back in the ground earlier, just until I could get the freezer cleaned out.”

He placed the thing on the kitchen table with a thump. It was definitely a bone, and a very large one.

“Whoa,” Brenda said quietly.

“Max believes it may be the beast’s ankle bone,” Casper said, looking at his son admiringly. Brenda did the same, and Max’s face turned bright red.

“Oh, for goodness’ sakes, that’s just an old beef bone,” Lucia said. “One of the neighbourhood dogs probably buried

“Really?” Casper raised one eyebrow at Lucia, a thing that none of his children could do, though they all had practiced in front of a mirror. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Lucia said resolutely.

“How much do you want to wager?” Casper asked.

Lucia shrugged carelessly but she looked a little uncomfortable.

“How about your birthday money?” Casper suggested.

Lucia hesitated while Otto examined the bone with his free hand, as though he were trying to assess Lucia’s

“Forget it.” Lucia backed down. Her nostrils puffed out very widely and she added smirkily, “Believe what
you want to believe.”

“Well said!” Casper exclaimed and he kissed Lucia’s forehead, leaving a smudge of garden dirt on it.


Later, Lucia watched out the window as Max walked Brenda down the front path, then stood at the edge of the front lawn and watched her walk away. Brenda turned around once to look back at him and he waved enthusiastically. She waved back. A small careless wave.

Here’s what Max looks like: dark hair like Lucia and blue eyes like Otto. Chin slightly cleft like Lucia and nose on the snubby side like Otto. If you studied him, you would swear he looked like a perfect combination of the two, but if you looked away from him suddenly and then you looked back at him, you’d think that he didn’t look a single thing like either of them.

“He thinks she’s going to come back,” Lucia murmured.

Otto looked up from the robin, confused for a moment, then followed Lucia’s gaze out the window.

“Brenda will go to school tomorrow and tell everyone about the dinosaur bone,” Lucia continued airily, “and everyone will tell her about Mum. Then Brenda won’t ever step foot in this house again.”

Here is what happened to their mum. One day she was gone. Casper looked everywhere for her. The police looked everywhere for her. The police searched their house too, and they brought dogs to sniff through the garden, as though Casper had done something fi endish, you understand. A crowd of neighbours stood outside, watching. In the end, the dogs found exactly nothing, but you can’t have dogs sniffing through your garden to find your missing mum without there being some serious damage to your family’s reputation. Mum was never found. Soon after that, Otto started wearing his scarf all the time.

Here is the part I hate to even mention, but since it figures into this story you’d better hear it now. An ugly rumor started going around. People whispered that Otto had strangled his mum with that very scarf in a fit of rage, and that Casper had buried his wife in the yard to cover for him. Otto had always been a strange, quiet boy. Strange, quiet boys are never popular in small towns. Kids in school started harassing Otto with questions about what he’d done to his mum and where her body was buried and did her ghost haunt him at night until, quite suddenly, Otto simply stopped talking. He’d never talked much to begin with, so it was just a stone’s throw to nothing at all. Still, that made things even worse, of course. Before long, all of Little Tunks acted as if the Hardscrabbles had the lurgies, which in case you don’t know is what kids say you have when they don’t want anything to do with you, as in “E www , don’t touch the Hardscrabbles, they have the lurgies!”

“Don’t you think we should warn Max?” Otto asked. “So he won’t get his hopes up about Brenda coming back?”

Lucia stared at her younger brother, who was now walking toward the huge oak tree by their house, which he would certainly climb to sit on his usual rooftop perch by the chimney. His stride was bouncy and his eyes were lost in some imagined future that was clearly much brighter than the present.

“No. Let him believe what he wants to believe,” Lucia said. Her voice didn’t sound smirky this time. It sounded full of genuine pity. Which should make you like her even more.

Chapter 2

In which Otto finds something interesting,
Lucia listens to nothing at all,
and more stuff happens

The little robin stayed wrapped in Otto’s scarf throughout dinner, perfectly motionless except for its tiny chest, which rose and fell with rapid breaths. Toward the end of dinner, though, the bird began to twitch. It lifted its head, then attempted to right itself, its claws scratching at the scarf to gain a grip.

“I think it’s coming round,” Otto said, gazing down at it.

Casper looked over at Otto through his thick round spectacles, then at Lucia.

“What did he say?” Casper asked her.

“He says it’s coming round,” Max interjected. He took every opportunity to show that he knew Otto’s language
as well as Lucia did.

“What is?” Casper asked.

“A bird, Dad,” Lucia said. “Otto’s got a bird in his scarf.”

“Ah,” Casper said, and went back to his dinner. He saw so many odd things in his line of work that a bird in a scarf at dinner was fairly ordinary.

“Oh, poor thing,” Lucia said, watching while Otto carefully disentangled the pinny little claw from the scarf. “We should put it in a box. Just until we’re sure it’s fine.”

So off they went to search for a spare box. You always think there is an endless supply of spare boxes, but there never really is. The spare ones are nearly always smashed or else have a mouse corpse curled in the corner. There were no spare boxes to be found in the basement or in any of the closets and the poor little robin was beginning to really make a fuss.

“We might try Dad’s studio,” Otto suggested.

That hadn’t occurred to Lucia. Casper’s attic studio always seemed like its own separate flat that coincidentally happened to be attached to the top of their house. They opened the door at the far end of the upstairs hallway and climbed the steep, narrow stairs, right away smelling the nutty odor of linseed oil and, lurking behind that, the nostril-wincing sting of turpentine.

They didn’t often enter Casper’s studio when he was in there. The room wasn’t off-limits exactly; it was just that Casper acted differently while he was at work in his studio. He stared at his sketch pad when he spoke to his kids. His voice grew vague, and his eyes had a faraway cast. In the studio, Casper’s children felt slightly less substantial, as though they were one of Casper’s daydreams, that might grow fuzzy around the edges and vanish without warning.

When Casper wasn’t in the studio, though, the children did like to come in to see the sketches hanging on the wall. They were the sketches that Casper brought home from his travels abroad— sketches of princesses and sultans, barons and kings, and an occasional knight (the actual paintings were left with his clients, of course, but Casper was able to take home the preliminary sketches).

In fairy tales, kings and princesses always look different from the everyday person. They’re better looking or taller or fatter or even uglier. You’d think that was just all nonsense in real life, since royals are just people like everyone else.

Except, they’re not.

They really do look different from the average person, even royalty who have been booted off the throne or have lost all their money. Casper’s sketches proved it.

The Duchess of Hildenhausen, for instance, was a thick- jawed, middle-aged woman with long blond ringlets that were spiked with tiny cornflowers. One of her huge blue eyes went the wrong way, so that she looked just like a doll that had been rattled about by an angry child. And there was Prince Wiri, who had ruled The Sister’s Islands in the South Pacific until his family was accused of witchcraft and they were exiled to Fiji. The black- haired Prince Wiri, dressed in a white military uniform crowded with epaulets, was an exceptionally handsome young man— as handsome as any movie star— but he would not smile or even show a hint of happy in any of Casper’s sketches. Lucia enjoyed feeling sorry for him. Then there was the immensely fat Prince Andrei, whose family had once ruled a small principality south of Bulgaria. He had squinty eyes and a long, thin black beard, frayed on the ends. Perched on his shoulder was a black fox. Casper said that the fox was very clever and could bounce on a tiny trampoline that Prince Andrei had had built for him. Still, the fox didn’t like Casper and would occasionally leap off the prince’s shoulder to vomit on Casper’s shoe.

Ex- royals were more difficult than regular people too. Casper said this was because they were frustrated. A duchess who lives in a tiny four-storey walk-up with a leaky toilet will never be a happy duchess, he said. They snipped and snapped and did strange things. While painting the Duchess of Hildenhausen— the lady with the wonky eye— Casper was interrupted dozens of times while the duchess leapt up to throw boiled potatoes at a mouse that she swore had been harassing her for months.

Also, unlike regular people, royalty didn’t feel the need to pay their bills. Once in a great while they paid Casper what they said they were going to pay him. But more often than not Casper would come away with little more than partial payment, a box of expensive chocolates, and a promise of payment in full when their “affairs were settled” or “after the sale of a house in Spain.” Ex- royals, it turned out, were a pretty shifty lot.

So Casper supplemented his income by doing illustrations for small kitchen appliance repair manuals and occasionally for the Journal of British Hog Farming.

“Why don’t you just paint regular people, Dad?” Max had once asked him. “At least they’d pay their bill.”

“Probably,” Casper said. “But there is something extraordinary about the face of a person who has fallen from greatness. They remind me of angels tossed out of heaven who are now struggling to manage the coin-operated washing machine at the Scrubbly-Bubbly Laundromat.”

You must make allowances for artists like Casper. They get romantic ideas about things.

There were plenty of boxes in the studio crowded into the low corner of the attic, but they were all filled. Some contained bundles of old sketch pads and others had loose drawings and still others held copies of toaster repair manuals that Casper had illustrated or back issues of the Journal of British Hog Farming.

“Here,” Lucia said, picking out a small carton from the back and handing it to Otto. “This one’s not full yet. We could just shift some of the papers inside to another box and free it up.”

Otto put the box down and looked inside. “I think it’s just garbage in here. See, most of it’s crumpled.”

“Well, no wonder,” Lucia said, walking over to Casper’s dustbin. The dustbin was heaped up high with papers. Bits of pencil shavings were spilling off the top of the heap and had pooled around it on the floor. Lucia scooped up the shavings and tucked them in the corner of the dustbin, then shoved the rubbish down with the heel of her hand.

“Honestly, this place is beginning to look as wild as the garden,” she said, lifting up the dustbin. “I’ll go empty this downstairs.”

And while she did, Otto found something interesting in the box of crumpled things.

This isn’t surprising. Otto was very good at finding things that were not meant to be found. He often found birds’ nests tucked in bushes. Once he found a litter of kittens that Esmeralda had stashed beneath a loose floorboard in the garden shed— two white ones and a little black one. Last year he found a bunch of love letters that Casper had written to their mum. They were shoved in the pocket of her dressing gown, which was shoved in the back of Casper’s closet, along with all her other clothes. The clothes still smelled of peppermint from the Such Fun Chewing Gum factory.

What is surprising, however, is that Otto didn’t tell Lucia he had found the interesting thing in the box. He usually told Lucia everything. By the time she returned he had tucked the interesting thing in his back pocket, and all Lucia saw was a robin standing upright in an empty carton and Otto looking slightly paler than usual.

(I hope you don’t think I’m teasing by not telling you what Otto found. I will, I promise. It’s just that there is a right time and place for everything, and 7:19 p.m. on a Thursday in Casper’s attic studio is simply not the right time and place.)


That night, Lucia lay in her bed, listening to nothing. The sound of nothing is the most ominous sound in the world. It’s the sound a cat makes a second before it lunges for a mouse and sinks its arrow-tippy teeth into the poor thing’s neck. The sound of nothing was also the sound that Casper made right before he was about to leave them.

Usually, Casper was a night owl. The darker it grew, the busier he became. He cooked at night, he painted at night. His children went to sleep to the lullaby of the radio that he played in his studio or his quick footsteps creaking through the house until the wee hours of morning. But right before Casper was to leave for a job, he slept. Perhaps it was anxiety that tired him out. Or excitement.

But he hadn’t mentioned a new job, Lucia thought. And he’d been away just two months before. Surely he wouldn’t make them stay with Mrs. Carnival again so soon?

To take her mind off the sound of nothing, Lucia did what she always did when she felt troubled. She stared at the Sultan of Juwi. She had strategically hung him above her dresser, directly across from her bed, so she could gaze at his face before she went to sleep and wake up to the sight of it in the morning. The white-robed sultan sat in the center of a fountain, on the head of a stone cherub that poured water out of a jug. The sultan held an egg in one hand and a silver demitasse in the other while he looked directly out at Lucia. She knew his face by heart: the creamy skin, the fl at disk of cheekbone, the amused wideset dark eyes that seemed to see all her worst qualities and like her even more because of them. Perched on his head was a crown that looked like a large bejewelled mustard lid, and his white robe was cinched around the middle with a black sash. The left ear had a small hoop earring in it, and the right ear was a bit mangled looking. A mischievous half smile curled one side of his mouth. It was the smile of someone who has recently made a prank phone call. When Lucia told her father that, Casper nodded.

“Quite possible, knowing the sultan.” Then Casper’s face grew sad, as did Lucia’s, because they were both thinking about the awful thing that had happened to the sultan shortly after the sketch was done.

I’m going to tell you the story of the Sultan of Juwi now, even though my English teacher, Mr. Dupuis, says it’s bad form to skip back and forth in time. He says that just confuses readers. So I’m giving you fair warning that I’m going to be doing it in a moment, and if you’re still confused I don’t know what to say except you may be slightly daft.

It was two years ago. Casper had just returned from a trip to the Juwi Islands, off the coast of Indonesia, and he was unpacking his sketches from his leather portfolio and laying them out on the kitchen table for his children to look at. This was something he did every time he returned from one of his trips. The Hardscrabble children all loved to see his sketches and to hear stories about the people he had painted. Casper would tell them about the silly things his clients said and the absurd things they did. He found them amusing but ridiculous, which pleased his children. If you think about it, you can see why. Casper left his children to be with them, so in a way they were the children’s competition.

But when he unpacked the sketch of a handsome boy with a half smile on his face, Casper’s face turned grim. Hastily, he tried to stuff the sketch back into his portfolio.

“Wait,” Lucia said, putting a hand on the sketch.

“Who’s that?”

Casper sighed. “The young Sultan of Juwi.”

“Sultan?” Lucia said, staring hard at the picture. “I always imagined a sultan would look more . . . I don’t know, swarthy- ish.”

“His mother was an American, I think,” Casper said.

“Was? Is she dead?” Lucia asked.

“Extremely,” Casper said. “So are his father and his sister and three brothers.”

“How?” Lucia asked.

“Awful story really. It happened when the sultan, at that time just a prince, was fifteen years old. A fountain had been erected in the village square, and the royal family was to do the honor of unveiling it. What they didn’t know was that the prince’s own uncle had been plotting against the royal family. A fellow named Azziz, a doctor, well educated— Oxford, if I remember correctly— and power hungry. Now he had the perfect opportunity to wipe out the whole royal family in a single day. Just as the young prince’s father removed the cloth from the fountain, the royal family was ambushed and murdered, even the youngest, a girl who was only two. They say that the fountain’s water turned red that day, dyed with the royal family’s blood. They would have killed the young prince as well, but he was home that day, ill with the flu. So here he was, age fifteen— just two years older than you, Otto, imagine!— and he was crowned the new Sultan of Juwi. He had four advisors, all wise and good. They worried that Azziz would try and kill him too, and they urged him not to leave the palace, and to duck when he passed a window, in case a sniper was waiting outside. But the sultan couldn’t live like that. He was too bold, too interested in life. The day after he was crowned, the young sultan told everyone, ‘If I die this morning, remember to feed my pet peacock.’ And off he went to eat his lunch at the very fountain where his family had just been killed.”

“Mental,” Otto said.

“Maybe. Some people say that madmen are protected by the gods.” Casper smoothed Otto’s hair away from his left eye. “So are the fearless.”

“Anyway,” Casper continued, “every day the young sultan went to the fountain to eat his lunch, wearing a black sash around his waist to show that he was still in mourning for his family. He refused to take his bodyguards, and always reminded his servants, ‘If I die today, remember to feed my pet peacock.’ Then he walked to the village square alone, stepped right into the fountain, water and all, and climbed to the tippy-top of it. From his robe pocket, he pulled out a hard-boiled egg and he nibbled on it between sips of tea from a silver demitasse.

“The people in his village were so touched by the young sultan’s bravery that they began to come to the fountain and eat lunch with him. Soon nearly the entire village would arrive with their bowls of boiled rice and onions and their flasks of strong coffee and they surrounded the young sultan as he ate his egg. He couldn’t have asked for a more devoted army. Dr. Azziz would have loved to kill the boy at the fountain, since the young sultan was the only person standing between him and the throne. But Dr. Azziz was afraid that if he killed the sultan, it would cause an instant rebellion among the people. They loved him that much.”

The Hardscrabbles all looked at the drawing again. The sultan smiled back at them so mischievously that they couldn’t even be jealous of the way Casper felt about him.

“What’s wrong with his ear?” Max asked.

“His ear? What do you mean?” Casper said.

Max leaned across the table and pointed at the mangled right ear.

“Ah!” Casper said. “Nothing was wrong with it. It’s just that the sultan vanished before I could finish the sketch.”

“Vanished? He was finally killed at the fountain, do you mean?” Lucia said, suddenly feeling sickish in her gut.

“No, not at the fountain. No, the cowards who took him did it in the middle of the night. No one heard a sound. In the morning, the only thing his advisors found in his room was an empty bed and the black mourning sash lying on the floor, stomped on by muddy boots.”

“Where did they take him?” Lucia asked.

“No one knows.” Casper shrugged one shoulder.

“Do you think they killed him?” Lucia asked.

“Of course they did,” Max said.

Casper looked out the window, gazing at the wild garden for a few seconds before swallowing hard. He picked up the drawing of the sultan and began to tuck it back into his portfolio.

“Can I have it, Dad?” Lucia asked.

“What, the sketch? But it’s no good really. It’s not finished.”

“I don’t care. I like it,” Lucia said.

She hung it on her wall.


But tonight, even the sight of the Sultan of Juwi couldn’t distract Lucia from the terrible silence (and now we are back to the present. See, that wasn’t confusing, was it?). She slipped out of bed, wrapped herself in her dressing gown, and went down the hall to the boys’ room. Max was sound asleep on the top bunk, his blankets thrown off of him as usual and his foot dangling from the edge of the bed. Otto was stretched out on the bottom bunk, his hands folded above the blankets, his eyes wide-open. The box with the robin inside it was next to his bed, one of Otto’s old T-shirts partially covering the top.

As Lucia approached, Otto slowly turned his head towards her as though he’d been expecting her. He wore a pair of pyjamas made of purple silk, heavily embroidered with red dragons, which Casper had brought back from China. And of course, he wore his scarf.

Lucia peered at the robin in the box before she sat down on the edge of Otto’s bed. “He looks much better,” she whispered.

Otto nodded. “I’ll probably let him go in the morning.”

They were silent for a moment before Lucia whispered ominously, “Dad’s sleeping.”

“I know,” Otto answered.

“But it’s too soon! He only just got back from Africa.”

“That was months ago,” Otto said.

“Still, it’s sooner than it ought to be. This past year he’s been away four times. That’s more than ever before.”

“It’s not like he wants to go,” Otto said. “He does it for us.”

“Maybe.” Lucia narrowed her eyes as a new idea formed in her mind. “Or maybe he just says that to make us feel better. I mean, what would you rather do: stay in boring, rubbishy Little Tunks or travel to exotic lands?”

“I’d rather stay in Little Tunks,” Otto said.

“Well, that’s you,” she replied, with a dismissive snap of her wrist.

They were silent for another minute, then Lucia spoken in a wilting voice, “I wonder when we’ll be sent to Mrs. Carnival.”

Above them, Max suddenly tossed violently in his bed, as though the mere mention of Mrs. Carnival had instantaneously brought on a nightmare. He moaned several times and flipped over twice more before he settled down again. Poor Max had it the worst with Mrs. Carnival, you see, because she had an oil cyst on the back of her neck the size of a grape. Every so often she liked it to be squeezed and drained, and Max’s fingers, she said, were exactly small and soft enough for the job.

Otto reached up and gently patted Max’s leg. As he did, though, his pyjama top lifted and Lucia saw the top of a folded piece of light blue paper sticking out his pyjama bottom’s waistband.

“What’s that?” she asked.

Otto quickly pulled his top down.

“Nothing,” he said.

Lucia studied her brother for a moment. Her heavy black eyebrows lowered and she sucked back her breath in a long hiss. Otto was keeping a secret from her! Never, ever in their entire lives had Otto kept a secret from Lucia! He told her everything, and she him, even the dumbest things. Like when Otto put a dried bean up his nose one morning, just to see, and it came out of his mouth later that afternoon, Lucia was the only one he had told. And just two weeks ago, she had confessed to Otto that she was quite possibly in love with her English teacher, Mr. Dupuis, because he sort of looked like the Sultan of Juwi. Around the chin and eyes.

But now it seemed that Otto had a new secret and he didn’t trust Lucia with it. It was intolerable!

She reached out and yanked his pyjama top back up to make a grab for the paper but Otto scooted backwards in his bed before she could get it.

“Show me!” she cried.

“Shh,” Otto warned, nodding toward the upper bunk.

“I don’t care. I won’t have you keeping secrets from me,” Lucia said without lowering her voice.

“I’m not,” Otto said. “I was just waiting to tell you. Just until I was sure.”

“About what?” Lucia said.


Above them, Max groaned and turned.

“Oh, fine,” Otto said. From under his pillow he pulled out a torch, and switched it on. Then he pulled the blue paper from his waistband but before he handed it to Lucia, he stared hard at her with a strange expression on his face. It was a look that is commonly used by members of certain tribes in the Amazon, who are about to cross deep gorges via fragile rope bridges. It’s a look that says, “Step lightly here, my friend, I beg of you.”

Lucia understood the look perfectly, and was thrilled.

It meant that something really interesting was about to happen.

“It might be nothing at all, Lucia,” Otto said, seeing how his sister’s eyes fl ashed. That always made him nervous. It meant she was getting ideas.

“Yes, yes,” Lucia said impatiently, holding her hand out for the paper. “Just show me.”

He handed it to her, shining the torch beam on it as she unfolded it.

It was a letter, dated the month before. Here is what it said:

Dear Casper,

Well, I warned you that I was coming to visit
one of these days and now I’ve gone and done it.
I even spent my morning “snoring by the sea”
until a gull dropped a damn clam on my forehead.
I hate the sea. Smells like salty horse manure.

I’ ll see you when I see you.
Your loving aunt- in- law,
Haddie Piggit

P.S. How much do the kids know about their

P.P.S. If the answer is “Nothing,” don’ t you
think it ’s time you told them?

P.P.P.S. Because if you don’ t, and they fi nd
out, they’ ll never forgive you. I won’ t say a word,
of course . . . these lips are zipped. This teakettle
don’ t whistle.

Lucia read it over another time, then looked up at Otto.

“Haddie Piggit?” Lucia said. “Who is she? I’ve never heard of her.”

“Well, she signed the letter ‘aunt- in- law,’ so she must be Mum’s aunt,” said Otto.

“I know that!” Lucia said (she didn’t, really). “The point is . . . what do you think the letter means?”

“It means that Mum is still alive.” This came from Max, who was now leaning over the edge of the top bunk, looking down at the letter in Lucia’s hands.

“Nonsense,” Lucia said. “It doesn’t say that anywhere. And anyway, I thought you were sleeping.”

“At the very least, it means that Dad knows more about what happened to Mum than he’s telling us,” Max said. “I think we ought to ask him about her again.”

“Don’t. You know he hates being asked about her,” Otto said.

“But she’s our mother, after all,” Max said. “We have a right to know. She’d want us to.”

“How do you know that? You barely remember her,” Otto said.

Sadly, this was true. Memory, in my opinion, is a complete noodle. It hangs on to the silliest things but forgets the stuff that really matters. The Hardscrabbles had forgotten so much about their mum that she only existed in fragments, like a doll that’s been taken apart and has pieces that are lost and others bits that are drawn on with a marker.

Otto, being the oldest, should have remembered her best, but in fact he remembered her least. His memory of her was as vague and ghostly, he told them, as one of Casper’s quick charcoal sketches.

Lucia remembered her hands, particularly a constellation of freckles around one of her right knuckles that right side up looked like a bowler hat and upside down looked like a dog with fl oppy ears. She remembered that same hand running through her own hair, making her feel sweet and drowsy. She remembered having kisses blown at her, and blowing them back, but she couldn’t remember the lips that blew them.

It was maddening really.

Max said that the thing he remembered most of all was the way she smelled. He said she smelled of peppermint. When Otto and Lucia told him that of course she did, the whole town smelled of it, he shook his head. “No, it was peppermint that grew from the ground, not the kind that came from the Such Fun Chewing Gum chimneys.”

Still, at four o’clock on Tuesdays and Fridays, the Such Fun factory pumped out their mountain mint flavor, which was close, Max said, to Mum’s smell. On those days Max liked to sit on the roof and smell the air.

That was all the Hardscrabbles had left of her. No photographs— Casper said she hated to be photographed—few memories, and a father whose face grew so sad when her name was mentioned that they stopped mentioning her at all.

“Think about it logically,” Otto said. “If Mum’s alive, she knows where to find us. She knows where we live, since we’ve lived in the same place all our lives. If she’s alive and wanted to see us, she might have come whenever she liked. She hasn’t, so she doesn’t. And if she’s dead, well, then what does it all matter?”

They were silent for a moment. Then Lucia said, “So what do we do now?”

“Nothing,” Otto said. “Things will go on as just they always have.”

Note to reader: If you ever want your life to turn topsyturvy, say, “Things will go on just as they always—” Oops, I almost said it. Anyway, say the last words that Otto just said. I, however, want to keep my life as normal as possible, so I can get on with writing this book.


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