Chapter 3

Mabel woke and glanced at the alarm clock next to her bed, certain it should have gone off by now. She had a panicky feeling that she was about to miss her bus. Sitting up quickly, she squinted at the clock, attempting to bring her brain into focus. Slowly, the numbers began to make sense. It was early. The sun was just making the tiniest start of an appearance, and she hadn’t set her clock to ring for another two hours. A dream about a math test, in a school which she’d forgotten ever to attend, dissolved and floated away.

Mabel’s room, in the corner of the brick house behind Eurus Press, was simply furnished, and rather neat as bedrooms go, except for several garments which could not decide whether they were clean or dirty, and which had somehow wadded themselves up between the bed and the wall. Additionally, a precariously piled collection of items threatened to avalanche off her dresser top, but the work area at her desk was orderly, and there she plopped herself, and flipped a computer on.

A few hums and whirs later the screen lit up and a clipped voice said, “Fancy you, needing help. I thought you were quite satisfied with a pencil.”

“Good morning Clemmy,” croaked Mabel, in a voice not quite ready to be used. “I don’t need to use a computer for everything.”

“Can’t you e-nun-ci-ate?” responded the computer. “You are barely intelligible. So…which file shall we open this morning: letters to relatives, or perhaps your travel journal?”

“I’m starting an essay on town history,” said Mabel. “For school.”

“Very well, I shall create a folder straight away.” A new folder icon appeared on the screen, bearing the title “history essay.” Then the desktop screen quickly changed to a blank word-processing page, and the voice said “Well then, go ahead.”

Mabel typed the words, “Logjam; history essay,” then sat staring at the screen for several minutes, wondering, as she often did, what it would be like to have a computer purchased at CompuMart instead of one of her father’s hand-me-downs.

“What now?” said the computer, interrupting the silence. “You don’t expect me to do it for you. I have no history software on my hard drive.”

“I don’t know what to write about,” responded Mabel, bracing herself for a reprimand.

“Well, shoo, shoo, shoo then. Go do some research. I can’t help you if you have nothing to write. I don’t think there’s a, after all.”

“In town there’s an empty lot, with a fireplace. I’d like to find out what happened there,” said Mabel.

“May I suggest,” said the computer, “that you go to the library. I am told by my web acquaintances that they are quite full of information. Of couse, I wouldn’t know, having spent most of my life on that beastly airplane. Rattles one’s hard drive terribly. Had to retire me in favor of a more buffered model. Not a very personable machine, if you ask me. In the meantime, please turn me off. I’m entirely tired of that tropical fish screensaver.”

“Okay,” said Mabel, hitting the off button. She felt awake now. Conversing with Clemmy was like a splash of cold water followed by a cup of coffee. Or maybe it was just the smell of her mother’s coffee. Mom must be up. Hastily, Mabel pulled on a shirt and some overalls and headed for the kitchen.

Mrs. Crockett was spreading marmalade on toast. Mabel helped herself to two slices of bread and popped them into the toaster.

“I might go to the library after school today, Mom,” said Mabel. “I need to do some research. Clemmy says so.”

“Clemmy’s probably right,” said Mrs. Crockett.

“I hope I can find something about the empty lot at the end of the street,” said Mabel. She briefly considered mentioning the strange man, Verdon Arbogast, to her mother, but even thinking about him was too creepy. In fact, if he was still going to be poking around there, Mabel felt she might prefer to find a different research subject for her essay. She swallowed the last of her hot chocolate and got ready for school.


Mabel sat in front of Van in their last class of the day, U.S. History. The teacher, Mrs. Nebbins, who looked and acted as much like a hummingbird as a person could, was flitting about in the front of the classroom, filling them in on details for their essayss. Occasionally, she added a note to a list on the chalkboard and, invariably, the chalk squeaked and most of the class cringed. Mabel cringed too, but found her attention distracted by a potted fern, hanging from the ceiling in a macramé sling right next to the American flag, by the chalk board. It was a pitiful little thing, completely overwhelmed by the colorfully glazed pot it lived in.

Several of its long fronds drooped over the side of the pot, and the ones managing to stay upright were bent in the middle. Several outer fronds had dried up and were ready to flake off.

The bell rang, and students scrambled to collect their books so they could get caught in the clog of their classmates at the door.

Mabel turned to Van who stood waiting for her. “Wait a minute,” she said impulsively, holding up a finger. She approached the teacher. “Excuse me, Mrs. Nebbins?”

Mrs. Nebbins paused momentarily between flits.

“I can’t help noticing your fern. It doesn’t look like it’s doing so well.”

“Oh no, it’s not,” replied the teacher, her face squishing into a sad little knot. “My niece Patty-Kate gave it to me, and made the hanger as well, so I wish I had a greener thumb.”

Van, who was accustomed to Mabel taking a special interest in plants, set his books down to wait.

“I think,” said Mabel, “that you need to move it to the back of the classroom. There’s more sunlight, but the main thing is…well, this is going to sound weird.”

Mrs. Nebbins looked as if she were hovering expectantly. “Yes dear?”

Mabel continued. “That plant is really, really bothered by the chalk squeaking. It can’t grow there. If you move it, it’ll do great.”

“Oh, how odd,” replied Mrs. Nebbins, smiling at Van with a sly wink. “I had no idea plants had ears, but I’ll try your suggestion and see how it does.”

Mabel and Van picked up their things and exited the classroom.

“That,” said Van, shaking his head, “is the kind of thing that has firmly established your reputation at Willibunk Middle.”

Mabel shrugged, and said “Yeah, I know.”

They headed down the crowded hallway, where throngs of kids banged locker doors and greeted each other with everything from rude comments to giggly enthusiasm.

“Hey, there’s Ivy,” said Van, gesturing toward the door of a science lab. Through the doorway, toting a backpack entirely too large for her tiny frame, strolled a girl who appeared to be eight or nine years old. In fact, she was an eleven year old whose scholastic abilities were so far beyond those of most sixth graders that she had been promoted two grade levels.

Mabel and Van hurried to the end of the hallway. Ivy, who saw them coming, held her ground to wait for them, though it meant being buffeted by normal-sized middle schoolers in a hurry to get to their buses.

“How about kumbana?” said Ivy to Van.

“Huh?” responded Van, though he and Mabel were accustomed to Ivy’s peculiar way of opening a conversation. It frequently took a bit of questioning to determine just what she was talking about.

“The fruit,” Ivy continued. “I helped Dad with that particular cross-pollination. It needs a good name.”

“Kumbana,” repeated Mabel, recalling the delectable fruit Mrs. Peale had given her a taste of. “I like it. Good name.”

“Sorry, can’t help,” said Van, with a shrug. “I think Mom forgot to let me try it.”

“Don’t worry, Van,” said Ivy, dodging a paper airplane someone had haphazardly launched. “It’s a keeper. We’ll grow more.”

Ivy Halfslip hadn’t a shy bone in her body which was a good thing for a middle schooler who didn’t look the part. Not only was she young and small, but features were peculiar. Her hair was tan, growing in thick, fibrous strands which resembled the woody insides of a banana stem. She kept it braided in tight rows to counteract its tendency to curl awkwardly in every direction. Her hazel eyes seemed too large, and her complexion was the color of an acorn which hadn’t quite made the transition from green to brown.

Outside of the school’s main entrance, an oblong drive was lined with school buses. Mabel, Van, and Ivy lugged their overstuffed backpacks toward bus twenty-one, at the end of the line. Running alongside the sidewalk were several well-tended clusters of trees, shrubs, and flowers, where members of the school grounds committee waged an ongoing battle against the students’ tendency to trample vegetation and strew unwanted papers about.

“Oh great,” muttered Van, in a voice meant only for Mabel and Ivy. “It’s the Blunt-brain and his little band of hooligans.”

“Just nod, and ignore them,” advised Mabel.

Leaning nonchalantly against a planter was Mitchell Blunt. Each time Mabel noticed him, he seemed to have experienced a new growth spurt. At present he stood six feet tall, but the rest of his proportions had not caught up. He resembled a lean weed with white-blond spiky hair, a black t-shirt, and green pants, striped vertically, which exaggerated his long frame. Surrounding Mitchell, in similarly indifferent poses, were several of his friends and groupies.

“Hey Peale,” began Mitchell, as Van, Mabel, and Ivy approached his planter.

“Hello Mitchell,” said Van, nodding, as the three of them attempted to walk by.

“Hey Peale,” Mitchell repeated in a sharper tone, stepping in front of Van with one move of his lengthy frame. His posture softened and he clearly expected his friends to laugh along with the funny comments he intended to make.

“I saw your little Martian friend’s relatives on ‘The Twilight Zone’ last night.” He rumpled Ivy’s hair patronizingly. “They were from Venus.” Chortles erupted from the gang at the edge of the sidewalk.

Mabel groaned inwardly, knowing that Van could never let a stupid comment slide by.

Van looked at Mitchell with a combination of disgust and resignation, and said, “Mitchell, if Martians came from Venus, they wouldn’t be called Martians.”

Not bad, thought Mabel to herself, if we can just leave it at that. But it was not to be. She grimaced as she heard Van open his mouth again.

“Maybe,” Van said, “you should check out ‘The Dummy’s Guide to the Solar System’ before you make any more attempts to guess someone’s ancestry.”

“Oooh,” chorused Mitchell’s gang.

“Mitchell,” began Ivy, “Van was trying to defend me, and it was very nice. But you’re welcome to say whatever silly things you want about me. I really don’t mind.” She grabbed Van by the arm and moved toward the bus.

“Who asked you, you little freak?” responded Blunt. A handful of cheese puffs hit Van on the back of the jacket. Mabel noticed Kendall Huffing, one of Mitchell’s most loyal female friends, smirking, a bag of the snack food in her hand.

For Mitchell, the flying cheese puffs were like the taste of blood. He grabbed Van by the front of the jacket and said, “Peale’s got to learn a little respect. Don’t you Peale?”

Mabel glanced quickly around to see if a teacher could intervene before things got out of hand, but they seemed to be engrossed in a gab session near the front door. Ivy stood by looking more irked than frightened. One of Mitchell’s friends was handing him a soda which he clearly intended to pour down Van’s shirt.

Van was making vain attempts to throw a punch at Blunt’s nose, but he was too far away at the end of Blunt’s long arm. Mabel looked toward the sidewalk in resignation, her hand over her eyes, when what she saw through the cracks between her fingers caused her to drop her hand and stare. Just as Mitchell clamped his hand around the soda can, a shoot of ivy, followed by a thick, soily, hairy root wrapped itself around his foot. When he made a move to step backward and readjust his balance, he found his left foot rooted in place. Within seconds, his entire spindly frame went sprawling to the ground, while soda spewed out of the can like a fountain raining down on his face.

While Blunt spluttered and swore, and Kendall rushed to help him to his feet, Mabel grabbed Ivy and Van by the wrists and made a dash for the schoolbus.

“Jeesh,” said Van, climbing up the schoolbus steps. “What a klutz. I wonder what happened to him?”

Mabel plopped into a seat and turned to stare out the window at the ivy which, to the chagrin of the grounds committee, was always trying to push its way up through cracks in the sidewalk, rather than staying in the planters where they wanted it.

Ivy seated herself next to Mabel. “You know, ivy is such a helpful plant, I’ve always found,” she said reflectively. “It can be awfully tenacious, but it’s always there in a pinch.”

Mabel looked quizzically at Ivy, then back at the ivy plant, as the bus pulled away from school. Ivy looked back at her, smiled and shrugged.

Bus twenty-one creaked away from Willibunk Middle, and was soon discharging its West Logjam passengers. At stop after stop, students climbed off the bus and headed for houses in neighborhoods of split-levels. Then, neighborhoods of wood-sided contemporaries. After that, neighborhoods of large, brick-faced mini-mansions with arched windows. Whichever particular model of house a neighborhood featured, the common thread was meticulously well-manicured lawns. Grass was green and grew where it was meant to. Gardens were well-delineated, and well-mulched. Leaves were raked and neatly bagged, awaiting pickup by the curb.

Then the bus bounced onto the Willibunk River Bridge. A sign at the far end said, “Welcome to East Logjam.” The scene changed. On River Street, nothing fit a pattern. Here were houses, there were stores, all built according to the whim of whichever East Logjammer had decided to rebuild on that particular lot after the fire of nineteen-fifteen. Laundry hung on lines, gardens fit the haphazard styles of their caretakers, and some yards remained completely uncultivated for the use of local wildlife.

Mabel always felt her insides relax as soon as the bus crossed over. One had to appreciate the effort that obviously went into the groomed residences of West Logjam, but the motley east side, to Mabel, was friendly and welcoming.

At the next bus stop, just beyond the east end of the bridge, Van hopped off, along with several others, and headed for the co-op. Mabel’s stop was next, and today she and the Bumpers were able to reach the sidewalk without incident. As Mabel turned toward home, a familiar hum drew her attention to the sky. Casting a broad shadow over River Street, a small single-engine plane, a Lockheed Shooting Star, was coming in for a landing at a small airfield a quarter mile behind Eurus Press. Van had seen it too, for, as soon as he could dump his backpack at the co-op, he came running down River Street, waving at Mabel and pointing at the sky.

“Dad’s back!” yelled Mabel, as the silver aircraft descended beyond her view. She hastily jettisoned her own books on the front step of Eurus, and the two of them ran down the alley beside the Press, through the Crocketts’ garden, around the brick house, and into a large stand of trees beyond the Crocketts’ tiny backyard.

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