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North of nowhere, p.1
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       North of Nowhere, p.1

           Liz Kessler
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North of Nowhere

  I need to write it all down. That’s the only way I’ll believe it’s true.

  Spring break, eighth grade. All those incredible, impossible things. Did they really happen? I’ve tried a hundred times to tell myself that they couldn’t have. That none of it is possible. And I’m right; none of it is possible.

  But that doesn’t change the fact that it is true. Everything did happen, exactly as I’m going to tell it now.

  The day began like the first day of any other school holiday. Dad was in bed with a cup of coffee and the Saturday paper. Mom was on the phone to Gran. Jamie, my older brother, was at the music shop in town where he’s had a weekend job for the last two years. I was in my room, getting ready to go out to meet my friends.

  For about another three minutes, the biggest concerns in my life were which belt went best with my new top and whether or not to put my hair up.

  Then Mom finished on the phone and called me down to the kitchen. And that was pretty much the moment my life changed forever.

  Not that I knew it, yet.

  The first indication that things weren’t right was that Mom didn’t even use my proper name. Or, rather, she did use my proper name. That was the problem.


  No one had called me Amelia for ages. When I began middle school a couple of years ago, everyone started calling me Mia. Then last summer, before eighth grade, I decided “Amelia” was officially banned. Everyone had called me Mia ever since. Even Mom didn’t use my old name anymore; she knew how much I hated it.

  But she did today.

  “Amelia, darling,” she called from the kitchen. “Before you go out, I’d like to ruthlessly destroy your life by taking you to the middle of nowhere, where you’ll die a slow death from boredom, loneliness, and a general lack of anything that makes life worth living.”

  OK, to be fair, those weren’t her precise words. What she actually said was, “Amelia, pack a bag. We’re going to your gran’s.”

  Which amounted to the same thing.

  I opened my bedroom door and called down the stairs, “I’m going out with my friends!”

  “Don’t shout down the stairs to me!” Mom yelled back, kind of forgetting that she was the one who’d started the whole shouting up and down the stairs thing.


  It was on the tip of my tongue to shout back and say so, when I had a better idea. I’d recently developed a new tactic that I called the “Be Nice” approach. I’d used it a lot lately and had found it to be quite effective in emergency situations. And finding out that your spring break has been effectively canceled and replaced by a trip to the back of beyond would surely count as an emergency in anyone’s book.

  I took a breath, practiced my “Be Nice” face in the mirror, and went downstairs.

  Mom was hunched over the kitchen table, her head in her hands. I ran straight over, forgetting to put on a pretend face or come out with a rehearsed line.

  “Mom, what is it?” I asked.

  She let out a breath. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “It’s . . .”

  I waited for her to continue. Running a hand through her hair, she shook her head. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” she said, forcing a bright smile onto her face.

  The only problem was, I knew that smile. It was the one she used whenever Dad decided to give her a “treat” and make dinner. It was the one she used that time I came home from town with a tiny new miniskirt that I’d bought with my pocket money. And the one she used when Jamie brought home his new girlfriend who had a pierced nose and a ring through her eyebrow.

  In other words, the one that was a total lie. Where do you think I learned my “Be Nice” trick?

  “Mom, what’s happened?”

  Mom stopped pretending to smile. “It’s your grandad,” she said.

  Which changed things a bit. See, Grandad is one of my favorite people in the world. I wasn’t crazy about going to visit him and Gran, but that wasn’t their fault. It was just that they lived so far away, in Porthaven, a tiny town where there was absolutely nothing interesting to do, and where everyone was either a fisherman or a hundred years old or both.

  Gran and Grandad had grown up there. Gran’s parents used to run the local pub. Gran and Grandad had moved down to live near us when Jamie was a toddler and I was a baby, but when my great-grandparents both died a few years later, Gran and Grandad inherited the pub. They hemmed and hawed for ages, but finally decided to move back to Porthaven and run it themselves.

  The town had three shops and one pub, which I was only allowed into because it was Gran and Grandad’s. Other than that — nothing. No cell-phone signal. No public transportation. No satellite TV. There was barely normal TV; the reception was touch and go.

  Up until last year, when I sat her down and explained it, Gran thought “broadband” was a wide piece of elastic. And she was typical of most of the people in the town. I once mentioned the World Wide Web to one of the fishermen down at the harbor. He gave me a funny look, then he laughed and opened his arms out wide toward the sea as if he could hold the expanse of the ocean in them. “That’s my wide world out there,” he said. Then he picked up his fishing net and added, “And that’s the only web I need for it.”

  I gave up trying to explain the Internet to anyone else in Porthaven after that.

  But Grandad was different. He understood me better than Gran did. It wasn’t that she and I didn’t get along; we’d just never found any common ground. My world was about being with my best friends, Jade and Ellen. It was about going to movies, hanging out at the mall, and checking out celebrities in all the trashy magazines. Gran’s world was about running the local pub in a tiny town, chatting with a few old fishermen, and making beds in the guest rooms they ran above the pub.

  I suppose that was Grandad’s world too, but at least he always took an interest in mine. He’d ask me what the number one songs were, or if I’d watched anything funny on YouTube lately. It always made me laugh when he said it. Partly because he was quite old, and old people don’t really watch YouTube. And partly because they didn’t even have the Internet, so I knew he didn’t really understand what I was talking about.

  But at least he made the effort. That was the difference between them. He tried to bridge the gap.

  Well, I didn’t know it yet, but Gran and I would soon find out that our worlds weren’t quite so far apart, after all. We were about to discover exactly how much we really had in common.

  But I’m getting ahead of myself. We need to get back to the kitchen, because my mom’s eyes had started to water.

  “Mom, what’s happened to Grandad?” I asked.

  Mom turned to look at me. “He’s left,” she said.

  “Left? What do you mean? Left what? Why?”

  “I don’t know,” she said. “It seems he and your gran had a bit of an argument a couple of days ago, and he’s gone.”

  “Gone? What do you mean, gone? Gone where?” I knew I wasn’t asking very clever questions, and they probably weren’t helping, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Grandad — gone? She must have gotten it wrong.

  “We don’t know where he’s gone; that’s the problem,” Mom said. “He left a note, but Gran says she can’t make heads or tails of it. To be honest with you, I could hardly even tell what she was saying between the crying.”


  OK, I haven’t told you that much about my gran yet, but here’s one thing that anyone who knows her will tell you: Gran does not cry. Ever.

  I remember as a kid, watching the sappiest films in the world with her, sobbing my eyes out, and Gran would sit there looking like a wax model — no emotion. I used to wonder if she had feelings at all, or if she kept them buttoned up somewhere inside her, as thou
gh they were wrapped in a big coat that she never took off.

  I turned back to Mom. “Gran was crying?” I asked, just to make sure I’d heard right.

  Mom nodded.

  Which was when I knew there was no point in arguing.

  I squeezed Mom’s hand, and then I went up to my bedroom to pack.

  “Why didn’t Jamie have to come?” I asked, ten minutes into the five-hour drive, as I fiddled with the radio to find a decent station.

  “I’ve already told you,” Mom said. “Jamie’s sixteen, you’re thirteen. It’s fine for him to be in the house while Dad’s at work. And anyway, he’s working all week at the record shop.”

  To be honest, I wasn’t all that bothered about Jamie not coming along. We argued most of the time anyway, so it would have just made the week even more difficult than it was already going to be.

  I finally found some decent music on the radio. I closed my eyes and tried not to think about how much I was going to miss Jade and Ellen and all the things we’d planned.

  And, more than anything, I tried not to think about how worried I was about Grandad.

  “Drop off your stuff and come downstairs. Lynne, you can go in Room Four; it’s the one at the end. The first three bedrooms are taken. Amelia, you can have Room Five across the hall, as long as we don’t get any last-minute bookings. If we do, you’ll have to share with your mom. I’ll put the teakettle on.” Gran abandoned us on the landing and went back downstairs to the pub.

  I dragged my bag down the hallway. “I’m not Amelia,” I mumbled.

  Mom touched my arm. “Please, darling, don’t make a fuss. She’s got enough on her plate. We don’t need to add anything else. Can’t you just put up with it for a week?”

  She was right. Grandad had disappeared into thin air. The last thing Gran needed was me fussing over what she called me. “OK,” I said glumly.

  Mom smiled. “Thank you. Now, get yourself unpacked and I’ll see you downstairs, OK?”

  I pushed open the door to guest bedroom number five. It was about half the size of my bedroom at home. The bed took up most of the space, with just enough room to squeeze in a nightstand on either side, a wardrobe in one corner, a sink in another, and a window on the opposite wall.

  I pulled back the curtain and looked out the window. It was drizzly and gray out, and little spots of moisture dotted the windowpane. I rubbed my arm over them, wiping a space so I could see the line of roofs and chimneys sloping down to the small harbor. Beyond the harbor was the sea, stretching on forever. There was a blurry line where the sea met the sky, but on a gloomy February day, it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.

  I stood in the window, watching the grim stillness. After a few minutes, someone appeared in front of a house and scurried, head down, along the harbor front. Then nothing. No noises. Nothing moved. Nothing happened. The loudest sound was the window shutter creaking in the wind.

  A whole week without talking to my friends?

  For the fiftieth time, I checked the signal on my cell phone. Still nothing. The room suddenly felt a bit smaller, and the air a bit thinner.

  Mom knocked softly as she popped her head around the door. “Amelia, are you coming down?”

  “Mom, it’s not Amel —” I began.

  “We agreed,” she said firmly. “It’s just for a week. Come on.”

  I rubbed my sleeve over the breath marks I’d left on the window, and I left the claustrophobic room behind me.

  Mom linked her arm with mine. “We’ll be OK, sweetheart,” she said. “Let’s just make sure your gran is too, eh?”

  I nodded. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be selfish,” I said. “It’s just . . .”

  “I understand,” Mom said, patting my arm. “I know how much this week meant to you. I’m sorry I had to drag you away. But we’re here now; let’s make the most of it.”

  “OK,” I agreed. “We’re here for Gran.”

  “That’s the spirit,” she said. “I’ve just called Dad to let him know we’ve arrived safely. He sent you this.” She planted a kiss on the top of my head, and smiled at me. “Come on, then,” she said, and I followed her downstairs.

  We went through the door to the bar at the back of the pub. I ducked under the counter and followed Mom through to the lounge, where we pulled up a couple of seats at one of the big wooden tables. Three men were sitting at the bar, talking and drinking pints. An older couple was sitting at a table, heads close together as they shared a bottle of wine. Gran came through from the kitchen with a pot of tea.

  “Fetch the rest of the things, will you, Amelia, dear?” she said to me, pointing at a tray of teacups on the bar.

  I bit my tongue and didn’t say anything about my name. “Sure,” I replied with a “Be Nice” smile. I caught Mom’s eye and she gave me a grateful nod.

  Gran poured three cups of tea and we sat in awkward silence. Mom tried to look Gran in the eye, I tried to think of something to say, and Gran tried to pretend nothing was wrong as she slowly added milk to the cups.

  Finally, Gran sat back and put her hands in her lap. “So,” she said. “I suppose you’re wondering what this is all about.”

  Um. Well, that is why we’ve traveled all day to be here.

  “In your own time,” Mom said softly.

  “Well, I can’t say I understand the half of it,” Gran said, “but I’ll start from the beginning, and I’ll tell you what I can.”

  Mom picked up her cup of tea and took a sip. I noticed her hands were shaking. As she caught my eye, I realized I was just as nervous. What were we about to hear? What kind of a week was in store?

  And what exactly had happened to Grandad?

  “It started last weekend,” Gran began. “He woke up on Saturday morning and announced that we were going away. Said we needed a break, and he wanted to take me on a romantic vacation.”

  “Did he have somewhere in mind?” Mom asked.

  “He said I could choose. Anywhere I wanted.”

  “So what was the problem?” I asked.

  “The problem was that it had to be this week, when we had three rooms already booked out. For the first time in Porthaven’s history, the town council has gotten it together to run a few events for tourists, and we’ll probably have our biggest takings in the pub since last season. Grandad expected me to cancel everything and run off on a silly whim with him.” She paused and took a breath. “Plus, we’ve had one disastrous vacation this year already,” she added tightly.

  “What trip was that?” I asked.

  Gran sighed. “That was a silly whim of his, too. It was just before Christmas. Oh, I remember now — it was the day the new brochures had come out.”

  “What new brochures?”

  “The brochures advertising Porthaven’s scheme to become some kind of wonderful vacation destination — as if!” she snorted. “Harry from the town council came around to ask if we’d help distribute them. Your grandad snatched a brochure and practically shoved Harry out of the house. Next thing I knew, he’d disappeared upstairs — then he came down half an hour later telling me he was taking me away for the weekend.”

  “So what was the disaster?” Mom asked.

  “Well, we went away and it was all very lovely — for the first night. Then Grandad went out for a walk the next morning and came back with a migraine like I’d never seen before. He spent the entire day lying in our room in the dark. I was quite worried about him, but thankfully it passed. Some vacation, though!”

  “So he was trying to take you away for a better weekend?” I asked.

  “Seems like it.”

  “But you said no,” Mom put in.

  “Of course I did,” Gran said sharply. To be fair, she does say a lot of things sharply, so it wasn’t that unusual. Then she frowned. Also not unusual. Then she said, “Do you know the strange thing?”

  Mom and I both shook our heads.

  “I don’t think he meant it,” Gran said quietly.

  “Why not?” I

  “He must have known I wouldn’t just shut up shop and run away from home. He can’t seriously have thought for a moment that I’d say yes.”

  “What are you suggesting?” Mom asked.

  Gran sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m suggesting. But he knows what I’m like. It’s all very well for him to have these silly ideas. He’s the one who sits drinking with the regulars, telling jokes, and sharing stories and laughs. I’m the one who keeps the books, and plans ahead, and makes sure that we stay afloat. He knows that. He must have known I wouldn’t do something so childish and irresponsible.”

  She was right. Gran ran their lives like a sergeant major. “So why did he ask you if he knew you’d say no?”

  “I don’t know,” Gran said. “I can’t help wondering if he’s just fed up. We’ve talked about retiring lately — but I can’t see how we could do it. Maybe this is his solution: run away from it all.”

  Then she paused. There was something else troubling her. I could see it in her eyes — not that she’d ever admit it. Gran sees admitting to problems as a sign of weakness. “Of course, there is one other possibility,” she said.

  “What’s that?” I asked.

  “That he wanted an excuse to get away from me. Pretending he wanted us to take a vacation that he knew I would never agree to. Then when I said no, I was the baddie and he could go off with a clear conscience, telling himself he gave me every opportunity to go with him.”

  Mom reached across the table to take Gran’s hand. “He wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t just leave you like that.”

  Gran looked at Mom’s hand on hers for a second, then she slipped her hand away and smiled a brittle smile at us both. “I know, dear. I’m sure he wouldn’t. There’ll be an explanation for the fact that I woke up yesterday morning in a cold bed, with my husband nowhere to be seen. I’m sure there will.”

  When she put it like that, I had to admit it didn’t sound too good.

  Just then, one of the men at the bar leaned forward and shook the bell on the counter. “Service, please!” he called, smiling across at us as he waved his empty pint glass above his head.

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