Last week we announced that Elle Strauss’ IT’S A LITTLE HAYWIRE was our new Kids Corner Book of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the Kids Book category: over 250 free titles, over 500 quality 99-centers, and hundreds more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer a free Kids Corner excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded this one already, you’re in for a treat!
by Elle Strauss
Here’s the set-up:
Middle Grade (8-12) with Illustrations and Hyperlinks to Charlie True’s Golden Oldies Playlist
Owen True is eleven and eleven twelfths and has been “exiled” to the small crazy town of Hayward, WA, aka, Haywire, while his mother is on her honeymoon. All he has to whittle away the time is the company of Gramps, his black lab Daisy, and his Haywire friends, Mason and Mikala Sweet. They don’t look so hot this year, in fact, the whole town has gone to pot since the mill shut down.
Owen has his first encounter with a real life homeless man who ends up needing Owen’s help in more ways than one. But how does a rich city kid help the small town’s suffering citizens?
And what is Owen to make of the fog train and its scary, otherworldy occupants that appear out of thin air on the old tracks behind Gramps’ house? Do they have the answer Owen is looking for?
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Owen True – The Exiled
I’VE BEEN EXILED UNJUSTLY. My deserted island is a small forgotten town called Hayward, WA, smack in the middle of nowhere in the dry desert valley with the crazy name of Okanogan. It is crazy here, so crazy, I call the place Haywire.
Not only am I exiled, but I’m imprisoned. My “prison cell” is a two story wooden house with peeling paint and a creaky screen door. This is to alert my “prison guard,” aka Gramps, of my comings and goings.
“Owen,” Gramps calls out from the kitchen, even though I’d pushed the screen door open as quietly as I could.
“Yeah, Gramps?” Gramps is in pretty good shape for an old guy, probably from all the work he does outside in his garden.
“Where y’off to?”
“Oh, just to look around. See if anything’s changed here since last summer.” I scoff in my head. As if anything ever changes in Haywire. Same ol’ sleepy town. “I might go see what Mason and Mikki Sweet are doing.” I let the screen door swing shut behind me.
“Be home by supper.”
Sure thing, prison guard.
I stuff my fists in the pockets of my blue jeans. They’re new, never been washed kind of stiff, from the collection of name brand clothes my mom bought me outta guilt. As if nice clothes could pay me off for what she did. Traitor.
Dad dropped me off this morning, only stayed for a coffee, before I watched the red tail lights of his silver BMW make dust down Maple Ave. Got dumped by my own dad. Can my life get more pathetic? Yeah, it can. I forgot my bag of electronics! My iPod and gamer—I can see the plastic Ralphs bag with my stuff in it in my mind, sitting on the bench by the front door. This month is set to be the worst time of my life.
And man, it’s hot. I forgot about the mid-summer heat in Haywire, dry hot with a wind going on like a gigantic hair dryer God forgot to shut off. Nothing like the humid stuff we get in Seattle. The grass on the hills is burnt out to almost white. Green pine trees here and there are scraggly like old toilet brushes. A tumble weed skittles by. An actual tumble weed! Am I stuck in an old western movie, or something? If so, it’s the boringest movie ev-er.
The Sweets’ house is on the other end of the same street as Gramps’. It only takes two minutes to get there, but somehow I turn it into ten. It’s not like I don’t want to see them, it’s just, every summer it’s the same awkward warm up after not seeing each other for eleven months. We don’t keep in touch during the rest of the year. We’re not that type of friends.
I tug on the collar of my T-shirt where a sweat line is forming, wishing I’d changed into a pair of shorts. I stop to scratch a new bug bite just as I get to the front yard of the Sweet house.
Their house looks even more worn out than Gramps’. Not only is the paint peeling worse than last year, but the shutters on the front window are hanging all wonky. The yard has toys and trash scattered about and it looks like the lawn hasn’t been mowed in this century. Not that the Sweets were ever your super tidy folks, but I can’t remember it being this bad.
Something moves in the window and I look up in time to see a head bob down out of sight. Is it Mikki? I almost call out, but then I don’t. If Mikki wants to talk to me she’ll just come out and do it. I decide to keep walking, taking a right at the corner and into town.
Haywire isn’t exactly your tourist trap. I don’t think most people know it exists, which is why it makes such a good exile destination. My mom and her new husband chose well.
I pass the gas station and the drugstore, the laundromat and the grocery store. Yup, exciting stuff. I wish I’d thought to bring my wallet. Then I’d buy a Coke or something. This heat is making my throat dry up like an old bun.
I decide to give the Sweets one more chance and head back the way I came. But before I get off Main Street, my eyes catch movement in a dark ally. A big cardboard box is pressed up against the wall. Why don’t people clean anything up around here?
Then a body pops out of it and I skip sideways, my heart making a quick trip into my throat and back. It’s a man with long, greasy hair tied back in a pony tail. His clothes are creased and grubby and he rubs the stubble on his face with his hand.
I shrink down behind a parked car so the guy in the box doesn’t see me staring. I’ve heard of homeless people before, but I’ve never seen one this close up. The man tosses a couple empty cans into a bag and shuffles, shoulders drooping like they’re too heavy for his body, around the corner and out of sight.
My feet take flight. I run several blocks toward the Sweets’ house and when I round the corner, they are there, Mikki and Mason, sitting on the front cement steps.
I’m out of breath and I flop my head down, hands resting on my knees, feeling stupid. Why didn’t I stop to catch my breath before I rounded the corner looking like a feeble dweeb?
Mikki and Mason don’t say a word, just stare at me, eyes narrow and searching.
“Hi, Mikki. Hi, Mason,” I say once I can breathe again like a normal human being.
“Well, if it ain’t Owen True.” Mikki’s voice is stretched and thin, like she’s forcing herself to be friendly.
Mason’s lips turn up in a smirk. “Nice hair-do.” My hand automatically brushes across the top of my head. My Mom made me get it cut short for the wedding. Mason snorts then gets up and goes inside. Two little girls come out at the same time, skipping down the steps.
“Oh crickets,” Mikki says. “Opal and Ruby, you two need to clean up this mess. What do you think this is? A pig pen?” I’m glad she hadn’t asked me. I’d have to lie.
Mikki stands up as if to supervise. She props her hands on her waist and her pointy elbows stick out on either side. The triangular spaces remind me of space shuttle wings. I bet she’d like to just fly off if she could. Get outta Haywire. I feel a little sorry for her then. Even though I’m stuck here for the whole of August, at least I get to leave when it’s over.
I can’t tell what color her sundress started out as, but it seems to me to be a size too small. Her freckles, sprinkled like a net across her nose have darkened in the sun like they do every summer. Her long brown hair is pulled up in a high pony tail and, I’m no hairdresser, but it doesn’t look like she used a brush to do it. She’s a bit taller than me now, and this new awareness makes something in my gut twist. I stoop down to pick up a smooth stone and whiz it over the nearby hedge.
“By the way, Owen True,” Mikki starts. She always calls me by both my names like they’re one word—Owentrue. “I go by Mikala now.”
Mikala? Since when? I’ve called her Mikki my whole life.
“Why the switch?”
“Cause that’s my name.” She flicks a strand of loose hair away from her eyes.
“And besides, Mikki doesn’t suit me anymore. I’m much too mature for that.” She’s only four months older than me but that does make her twelve.
“Okay, I’ll try to remember.”
We pretend to look around when we both know we’re watching each other. I’m trying to figure out what to do with the dead space. That’s what Dad calls the awkward silence when people don’t know what to say to each other next. He and mom had a lot of dead space going on before he moved out and across the city.
“So what’s new?” I finally say. She gives me an as-if-you-don’t-know look. Her knuckles whiten like they’re permanently attached to her hips.
“Not much. Dad’s never home, he’s practically moved into the pub since the mill closed down. Mom works day and night at the cafe to keep things going, and I’m left to care for the twins.” She flashes me a smug grin. “What’s new with you?”
What can I say? It doesn’t seem right to talk about my fancy city condo, or the expensive private school I’m forced to go to. I’m self-conscious of my new clothes still with the factory press lines in them, probably because Mikki—oh, excuse me, Mikala, is aiming her laser beams at my shirt. I wish I’d at least worn it inside out or something.
I almost tell her about my mom getting married to Arthur, aka Ar-throw-up, but Mikala might think I’m a whiner.
I stuff my hands in my pockets, my tongue tied like a knotted shoe lace. Mikala doesn’t wait around to entertain me. Before I know it, I’m alone again in her front yard.
I head back to Gramps’ house all sweaty and sticky on the inside and out. I kick the gravel, scuffing my bright white sneaker. I kick again with the other foot, scuffing that sneaker to match. I blow a loud huff through my nose.
I am wrong about one thing, I decide. Things have changed in Haywire.
Owen True – The Scaredy-Cat
GRAMPS’ BLACK LAB, DAISY, is lying on the ground by the steps when I get back. The dog is as old as me, so in dog years she’s like seventy-seven. Older than Gramps. I bend down to scrub her neck.
“How’s it going, Daisy?” I say. She looks up at me with her watery dark eyes and then licks my hand. Somehow she can tell I’m having a bad day. Dogs are smart like that.
I run my fingers through her rough, black fur and it reminds me of the seat covers in Ar-throw-up’s Lexus. It only has two seats. Guess what that means? No room for me, the third wheel. Mom usually takes me where I need to go anyway. Besides, why would I want to go anywhere with him?
The door creaks when I open it.
“Hey, big fellow,” Gramps says. He has a knife in one hand and a potato in the other. “Supper’s not quite ready yet. I carried your suitcase upstairs. Go pick a room and settle in.”
The steps are steep and narrow and I hang on to the railing to guide my way up. At the top, the ceilings start half way up the wall slanting upwards and meeting in the middle. Kinda like a big tent. Dad complains because he’s tall and has to slouch down, but I like it. It dawns on me that I will be sleeping up here by myself, since Gramps sleeps in the only bedroom downstairs off the living room. My stomach does a quick flip, but I shake it off. I’m not scared. I’m not a kid anymore.
I pick the room my mom and dad used to sleep in, back when they were still married and we were a normal family. The window faces a wide creek that had dried out a lot over the summer, but I’d still get wet up to my knees if I’d tried to cross it. A railroad track runs alongside it just beyond. When I was little mom used to always worry I’d get hit by a train.
“Wenny,” she’d say, using her nickname for me that I hate. “Be very careful. If you hear the whistle blow, run for the house.”
Just a normal overprotective mom I’d thought, and never paid any attention to her concerns. Then one day, when Gran was still alive and my parents still married, and they were busy chatting it up together in the living room in that boring way that adults do, I went for my own private hike into the backyard. I was just a little five year old kid with no sense.
The water was up to my waist and cold enough to make my skin break out in goose pimples. I’d only just reached the other side when I heard the train coming, and I didn’t feel like pushing through the rushing water again so soon.
It was just a train, right? Not like I was going to lay across the tracks or anything. But that train was a big hunk of fast moving steel that rattled my bones and pushed me to the ground. I curled up like a baby and yelled my five year old lungs out, sure that I was going to be sucked in under the train and killed.
After an eternity the caboose zipped by, and I was left with the sounds of my own whimpering. My pants were wet and I wasn’t absolutely sure it was left over from the creek, if you know what I mean.
I’ve kind of been freaked out by trains ever since. Anyway, the trains stopped running through Haywire last year when the mill closed so Mom doesn’t have to worry about that anymore, and neither do I.
Gramps had left my suitcase in the hall. I drag it into my new room and open it. I want to grab everything in one armful and stuff the dresser drawers, but I can’t escape my mom’s disapproving face. Fine. I place the items in one at a time and finish by putting on a pair of shorts. I make sure to remove the price tag before heading downstairs.
Gramps has the table set for two and in the middle is a big frying pan filled with fried potatoes and sausages. It smells really good and suddenly I am famished. The kitchen is small and the table takes up most of the space. I squeeze into my spot by the wall.
Gramps puts his hands together and closes his eyes. Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. Gramps likes to pray before meals. We never do this at our home in Seattle. I’m glad I hadn’t started eating before Gramps had finished giving thanks. It’s a little weird and I’m not sure what to do. I put my hands together and close my eyes. Then I crack one open so I know for sure when Gramps is done. At least he’s not one of those long winded pray-ers who goes on for so long the food gets cold. I’m not really paying attention, just waiting for the word, “Amen”. It’s kind of like the gun shot that tells the horses to start running.
Gramps goes “Amen” and I dig in.
“So,” Gramps says after a few bites, “how was your first day in Hayward?”
I’m leaning my face against my hand, elbow on the table, which Gramps ignores, shoveling food into my mouth with my other hand. “Okay, I guess,” I mumble, my mouth half full. Man, my mom would be on my case so fast if I did this with her.
“Did you see your friends?”
Gramps leans back and studies me. “I take it things didn’t go so well?”
Wow, Gramps can read minds. “Not really. I don’t know what happened, Gramps, but things have really changed around here.” It feels good to unload. “Mikki and Mason don’t seem to like me anymore. Oh, and I’m supposed to call her Mikala now, because apparently she’s so mature. And did you know that Haywi-, er, I mean, Hayward, has a homeless man?”
Gramps puts his fork down. “Well, Owen, the thing is, things have gotten really tough for folks in Hayward since the mill shut down. Most of the people here earned their living working there, so now, they don’t have work. It’s called a re-cess-ion.” Gramps says it like it’s three words.
I don’t understand, but I don’t understand a lot of things these days. I help Gramps with the dishes; he washes, I dry. Through the window I see a red breasted robin tugging a worm out of the ground.
Gramps sees it too. He breaks into song:
There’s a lonely little robin in the tree by my door that waits for his mate to return evermore, so remember please remember that I’m lonely too; this lonely little robin is waiting for you.
I laugh, remembering how Gramps always has a song for every situation. Weird that this is the first time since I got here that he’s done it.
Another thing weird? How quiet it is in this house. Gran always had their old kitchen radio blaring her favorite oldies station. It has a blue vinyl casing and a clock face with small and big hands. The knob to set the time is busted off. It used to annoy me when Gran turned it on, especially when she and Gramps would sing together. Not exactly American Idol material, if you get what I’m saying. But now, I miss it.
“How come you don’t play the radio, Gramps?”
“Ah, I don’t know. Reminds me too much of your Gran.”
I feel bad, and kind of awkward. Gramps goes to the living room and turns on the TV and I head outside. I sit on the old log, a worn trunk of a tree that the wind blew over in ’98 (according to Haywire legend) and toss pebbles into the creek. Man, life is the pits. I mentally cross one day off of my sentence in Haywire. Only twenty-nine days to go. I hope Mom is having a nice time in the Bahamas with Ar-throw-up. I get that they had to go on a stupid honeymoon, but for a whole month? I mean, what are they going to do for all that time? Won’t they get bored?
Maybe they’ll get sick of each other. Yeah, and Ar-throw-up won’t move into our condo with us after all. He can just drive away in his fancy schmancy two-seater car and never come back.
That way, maybe Dad would come home.
I’m making myself sick with all this sissy thinking. Mom’s not going to get bored of Ar-throw-up and Dad’s not coming home. He’s too busy with his really important job. So busy, I couldn’t even go live with him for a month.
Man, my life sucks. One month of Haywire Heck and then back to Suckage in Seattle, aka, seventh grade. What is there to look forward to, I ask?
My morbid line of thinking is interrupted by the train whistle. I almost sprint back to the house, when I remember that the trains don’t run through Haywire anymore.
But I hear the tooting sound again. It sounds just like a train whistle.
I strain my ears. There it is again. And again. Something is coming from down the track.
The sun has disappeared behind the hills and the sky is that pink smoky gray color that girls seem to really like. Dusk.
And some kind of fog? Weird. I stare hard not believing what I’m seeing. The fog rolls and twists like a big snake made of white cotton candy. It breaks into sections like a string of sausage, staying on the tracks as if it were an actual train.
I admit, I’m a little freaked out, but I can’t peel my bugging-out eyes away.
The whistle blows again and I dare to look around. Does anyone else hear it? I half expect Gramps to come bounding out the door.
Actually, I really, really wish he would. Maybe I should just go back to the house. But my legs won’t move. It’s like I’m paralyzed!
The foggy snake/sausage thing draws closer. My heart is thumping like a banging drum, but I can still hear the whistle.
I squint my eyes, trying to make it out. It’s kind of like when you watch the clouds move and you can pick out different images. Rabbits and things.
This one is a train. Except it isn’t daytime and it’s not in the sky.
And, man oh man, it’s barreling towards me! My legs won’t move and I think I’m going to pass out. At least it’s staying on the tracks, which are on the other side of the creek.
It shoots by, and I can almost hear a chug, chug, chug.
Then, when the “caboose” approaches, an enormous being springs out of the “window”. I’m so freaked out I slide off the log and fall hard onto my butt. I think I’m even whimpering.
The thing develops a face and its eyes look straight at me. Two massive sheets spring from its back like wings.
Then it raises its arm and…salutes?
And disappears into thin air.
I spring to my feet and flee to the house. My heart feels like it’s the size of a basketball, and someone’s bouncing it in a big gym.
I blast into the house searching for Gramps. The door slams behind me, but I can’t get my breath to call out.
Gramps is in the living room, stretched out on the recliner. The TV is too loud, blaring out the news. Gramps’ eyes are shut and his mouth is a gaping hole. He fills the room with a loud snore.
I don’t have the heart to wake him. Besides, what would I tell him? I just saw a ghost train?
And did I even…? I’m no longer sure. The whole thing’s pretty crazy. I go back outside and peek around the corner of the house. Nothing but darkness.
It has been a hard day and I am pretty exhausted.
Maybe I just imagined it.