Sam must solve the mystery of who he really is.
Sam is almost 11 when he discovers a locked box in the attic above his grandfather Mack’s room, and a piece of paper that says he was kidnapped. There are lots of other words, but Sam has always had trouble reading. He’s desperate to find out who he is, and if his beloved Mack is really his grandfather. At night he’s haunted by dreams of a big castle and a terrifying escape on a boat. Who can he trust to help him read the documents that could unravel the mystery? Then he and the new girl, Caroline, are paired up to work on a school project, building a castle in Mack’s woodworking shop. Caroline loves to read, and she can help. But she’s moving soon, and the two must hurry to discover the truth about Sam.
★ “This psychological mystery explores a child’s deepest genetic need for belonging. An engrossing examination of a profound theme in the deft hands of a discerning author.”—Kirkus Reviews, Starred
★ “Exquisitely rendered story of self-discovery. . . . Given the author’s expertise at developing sympathetic characters and creating a suspenseful plot, readers will find the complexity of Sam’ vulnerabilities to be as
intriguing as the unfolding enigma of his past.”—Publishers Weekly, Starred
An Excerpt fromEleven
Never mind being afraid of eleven right now. Tomorrow was his birthday. And where had they hidden his presents? Sam hadn't found a single one yet. He'd checked every drawer, every cabinet, under the beds, and even outside in the shed.
Only one place was left to search.
Could he do it?
He was skinny but tough. Of course he could.
He didn't bother with socks, just sneakers, and pulled on his jacket over his pajamas. He lifted his bedroom window that was two stories up, squinted out at the dark world, and felt for the pipe against the wall.
It was a crazy way to get to the attic, but the only way tonight. The attic _pull-_down door was in his grandfather's room next to his, and Mack was sound asleep by now.
Sam grinned; he pictured himself hopping around on Mack's bed, yanking down the overhead door, which would graze Mack's nose while Sam boosted himself up to the attic.
"What? What?" Mack would mutter in his sleep.
A riot. Too bad it had to be the pipe.
Sam swung himself out the window and gripped the pipe with his hands and knees. It was colder than he expected, icy. Imagine if Mack awoke in the morning to see him plastered to the side of the house, frozen solid.
He inched his way up to the attic window. Below, just beyond the shed, was the river, a narrow band of water; it slipped over the rocks, then swirled away so the rocks reappeared like turtle backs, shiny, ridged, and black.
It made him dizzy to look down. He closed his eyes. People who drove along the road in front hardly realized that a finger of the Mohawk River bubbled along behind his building. All they saw were the windows of the three stores: Mack's Woodworking Shop; Onji's Deli; Kerala House, Anima's Indian restaurant; and their apartments above.
Sam leaned his head against his raised arms and felt the stone wall with the tips of his sneakers.
Maybe he should scramble back inside.
No, he was tough.
Slowly he turned his head; the pipe vibrated. Not a light on in any of the three apartment windows. They slept like hibernating bears.
He boosted himself up a couple of feet. Night Cat was somewhere below, meowing up at him, Night Cat, ancient, crabby, waiting to be let in downstairs. "Wait a minute, will you?" he whispered. "You want to wake everyone?"
He raised one hand to feel the blistered paint of the wooden sill, and stretched to press his palm against the attic window. It slid up easily under his hand. Lucky. He hadn't even thought it might be locked. He threw himself inside as the pipe swung wildly and the cat meowed below.
Sam reached into his pocket for the flashlight and switched it on. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been up here. One Christmas he'd gone into Mack's room, climbed on the bed, and pulled down the attic door to peer up into the darkness. Mack had swung him off the bed, laughing. "How do you get yourself all over the place?"
Sam's flashlight threw shadows across the floor in front of him. He angled it up: jackets on hooks that looked like old men in a row, a jumble of boots crisscrossed over each other, but nothing that looked like a birthday present.
He tiptoed across the room; Mack was sleeping just below. Under the window was another box. Ah, maybe--
Mack's presents were the best. But the box was metal and locked, too old to be interesting. He leaned over anyway, and spotted a newspaper clipping sticking out of the edge. He tugged at it but saw that it would rip before it cameloose.
He crouched down: large black letters on top, a picture of a boy underneath. The nubby sweater with the zipper down the front looked familiar.
He caught his breath. He was the boy, but so much younger.
Such a little kid in the picture, three years old maybe. Why was he in the newspaper?
He ran his fingers over the words. He couldn't read most of them. It was a pain, not being able to read. More than a pain. But actually, the top word was easy: the ing stood out at the end--hadn't Mrs. Waring in the Resource Room told them a hundred times to look for groups like that? And the beginning, easy to sound: Miss--
He'd been missing?
Under the picture was his name: Sam. He realized he'd been holding his breath, and let it out in a rush. The last name was Bell. Sam Bell.
Such an easy word, an easy name, but not his. Not MacKenzie.
Suddenly he was cold, so cold up there with the open window in back of him, and the early-April wind blowing in against his shoulders.
There had to be a mistake. He'd know if he'd been missing, even as a little kid, wouldn't he? He searched around in his mind, trying to remember something, anything, and then, so clearly he could almost see it, there was a room with other children, one of them a boy, flapping his hands, wanting something that belonged to Sam. Sam had clung to the toy, holding on and holding on until--
Another memory: churning water, Night Cat on the edge of a boat, back arched, soaked, and the sound of foghorns.
Where had that come from?
Sam stood up, mouth dry, heart pounding. He heard the creak of Mack's bed underneath, and didn't move until everything was still.
He had to go back down the side of the building. He went out the attic window and grabbed the freezing pipe, sliding faster than he meant to. The pipe rattled, shook, screws popped. He went past his window, trying to stop, but couldn't, not until he reached the ground. His feet hit the dirt underneath hard enough to jar his teeth, leaving the faint taste of blood in his mouth.
Head down, shoulders hunched, he went around to the front, passing the restaurant on the end of the building, then the deli. The parking lot was empty except for Mack's pickup truck, Anima's small blue Toyota, and Onji's van with a picture of a guy taking a bite out of a hero sandwich. Night Cat was waiting at the door.
Sam fumbled in his jacket pocket for the key and went into the furniture repair shop, the cat padding silently behind him.
He walked through the workroom, threading his way around the tables. Cedar shavings crackled under his feet. Ordinarily he loved the smell of cedar, the feeling of the wood, loved the workroom, and loved Mack, who'd taught him how to cut, and join, and smooth. Mack, who'd helped him finish the birdhouses out back with their pointy roofs, and that bench down by the water for Anima.
Maybe he'd even been kidnapped?
By Mack? And maybe Mack wasn't even his grandfather?
Ridiculous. Why would Mack want to kidnap a kid who had trouble with reading right from the start? A kid who was into everything, breaking things? "A klutzy kid," Anima always said, smiling.
But maybe Mack hadn't realized Sam would turn out like this?
And suppose he really was missing? Suppose he didn't belong here?
Standing at the worktable Mack had set up for him years ago, he ran his hands over the scarred wood, seeing Mack's hands on his as he carved a wooden sign to hang over the table. Mack had helped him with the words, sam's place. Mack nodding, smiling, saying, "Yes, that's the way."
What would he do without Mack?
He didn't want to be anywhere else but this place with Mack, with Onji in the deli, and Anima with her rope of hair, her hands on his shoulders, laughing. He thought of his bedroom upstairs, the river out back, the small boat in the shed.
The article was a mistake. Or he'd misunderstood. Of course, a mistake.
He'd go right upstairs now and wake Mack, ask--
But suppose it was true, and he had to go back to wherever he came from, to some strange place?
No, he'd just forget about the whole thing.
He hesitated. What about his picture? Missing. That was what the newspaper clipping had said, and he had to believe it.
And what about that name? He whispered it, Sam Bell, trying to make it fit, a name he'd never heard before.
It was a name he had to find out about. Somehow.