Read by Alan Ruck
4 hours 56 minutes, 3 cassettes
Eleven-year-old Ian and his father, a Vietnam veteran, have been homeless for several years. Now his father has found the perfect place for them, the vast, old, now unused city courthouse. As a historic monument, it is kept heated and has lots of bathrooms and a variety of exits and entrances. Then Ian's father fails to return one night, and Ian discovers that a local museum is going to put a six-week exhibit of kites from around the world in one fo the largest courtrooms.
As the kites arrive and the exhibit is mounted, Ian is increasingly fascinated by what he sees when no one is there and what he overhears. The kites are beautiful—extraordinary, imaginative, and varied. Because he reads all the books on kites what are there, Ian becomes quite an expert. He bluffs his way into being accepted as a very bright and knowledgeable boy who can, when the exhibit opens, take groups of schoolchildren around.
Ian's precarious survival on his own, following all the precautions his father has taught him, makes absorbing reading in this highly unusual, realistic story of a closely knit remarkably independent father and son but the author of the 1996 Newbery Honor winner, Yolanda's Genius—also available on audio from Listening Library.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Alan Ruck's film appearances include Twister, Speed, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off as well as the Broadway production of Biloxi Blues. Ruck is also a series regular on the ABC television program Spin City.
The sounds below were what woke him. He had bedded down early, before dark, and slept lightly because of the hunger -- probably only an hour or two. It must still be evening.
He knew immediately which room he was in. Sometimes, when he awakened, he was confused; sometimes he thought he was back in the small, neat room at the Squirrel's Nest Motel. Sometimes he shook himself out of bed in his room at his grandmother's farmhouse. This was truly odd because he hadn't slept there since he was eight. Two years ago? Three? He had forgotten birthdays.
Except for a faint glow from the hallway outside, the room was dark. Had he imagined the sounds? He held himself still, scarcely breathing. There were the noises again. It wasn't the sound of the weekly inspector, who flushed all the toilets on the first and second floors in the vast, old building and then took a smoke in the lobby, nor was it the noisy warnings of the occasional police sweepdoors opening and slamming, terse voices.
These sounds bore a resolute hum, even cheerful -- women's voices, a man or maybe two. They were people who knew each other in a comfortable way. Not a family, not that kind of comfortable -- children scrambling about, a father holding pizza in a box, a mother's voice like a net hauling the children in. A mother's voice. What would that be like, having a mother call you? If his mother had lived past his birth, would her voice have pulled him home?
Now he lay alert on his back, stretched out on the floor as he usually slept, listening for a while to the faint murmuring below until he was sure they were not moving about. They had not come to search; they would not flush the toilets. They would stay where they were.
The hunger he had gone to sleep with nudged him. Still he lay there and listened -- listened for movement in the darkness around him, for the breathing close by that would tell him his father had returned, knowing as he did that he was alone.
Of all the rooms in this great old courthouse, this was the one he liked the best when his father was gone. It didn't have the two doors that his father always insisted on. A room with only one door is a cage, Ian. During the war, his father had once been someplace where he wasn't allowed out. But Ian favored this room over all the rooms in the big abandoned building. It had little arched windows at the floor level that only came up to his waist when he stood, as if this room had been made for miniature people. He liked the feeling of this room around him when he settled down to sleep, and he often lay next to the little windows and looked at the buildings across the way or gazed down into the street. He felt safe in this room for miniature people. His father felt safe in a room with more than one door.
Now the voices below quickened like music. He crouched, then made his way on hands and knees to the doorway, and looked out into the dim light made by the exit sign at the end of the hallway before he stood. Was his father trapped outside right now, waiting for these intruders to leave before he let himself in?
In the hallway, the voices could not be heard, and he stepped back into the room to be sure he had not imagined them. There were definitely sounds below, and they seemed to give off warmth. He wanted to get closer; he needed to reconnoiter (his father's word) -- needed to reconnoiter the group below, find out what they were doing here. How much danger were they?
Ian could walk noiselessly. He had been taught by his father to move as though he were part of space itself. Slowly, not disturbing the air, he moved like a cat along the hallway. There were no creaks in the floors of the Hall of Justice, although the historic marker outside said it had been built around a hundred years ago.
He paused where another hall intersected the south corridor. Listened. The voices below seemed to come from what had once been a vast circuit courtroom. The judge's high platform (the bench, his father called it) and the witness stand were made of oak, his father said, as were the spectator benches. They were all in good condition, although the building, according to his father, had been abandoned for a number of years.
There was only one way he could get close enough to hear and not be seen. The ceiling over the circuit courtroom rose past the second floor nearly to the roof. It was made of frosted glass panels. Above the panels was the actual roof, and from this were suspended eight gigantic lights with great shades that directed the light through the glass panels to the courtroom below.
Ian and his father had discovered the space that housed the lights on a late September afternoon when reconnoitering the roof for entrances and exits. They had just moved to the Hall of Justice from an old railroad station that was being converted into a fancy restaurant. This roof had two entries from the second floor, one near Michigan Avenue and one near State Street. Ian's father always found the entrances and exits for every new place.
To get closer to the voices, Ian would first have to go farther away. To the roof.
One of the sky doors to the roof was in a little alcove next to a room marked ASSISTANT PROSECUTOR. He could not hear the voices at all in this alcove. He climbed the ladder that hugged the wall and gave the hatchway door above several silent nudges with no success. His father had always gone first and lifted up the heavy door. Now, ignoring caution, Ian gave a great grunting push and the door swung upward with a squeak and a rattle; one more quick heave and it locked open. Had they paused far below to listen?
The outside air was fresh and cold. It was already dark now, but he knew his way among the deep shadows cast from streetlights below. With stealthy crunches, he crossed the deep gravel on the roof to where a hut-shaped rise sat like a little building on top of a giant one -- a little cabin on a moon of gravel. The door to it swung open easily.
He stood quietly in the doorway for a moment, savoring the voices that were now quite clear.
He stepped inside, closing the heavy door with great care, and paused on a little platform of steel grating. Listened.
A woman's laugh bubbled up from the courtroom below, followed by an answering chorus of laughter.
He crept down steel steps to a walkway that cleaved the long space into two equal parts, four great lamps on one side, four on the other. Somebody, a workman perhaps, had left a Coke bottle there on the steel grating of the walkway, an old-fashioned glass one, abandoned years ago, Ian guessed.
He crouched on the walkway, stared down into one of the frosted glass panels, which gave off a cloudy glow. He strained to see but the glass was opaque. Distinct as the voices now were, he could see nothing.
"Have you considered the amount of work?" A man's voice. It was one of those questions Ian remembered from third grade that don't require an answer. "Did you hear what I just said?" meant "I know you weren't listening."
"A lot of work for just six weeks," the man continued. "These benches have to come up. Where will you put them, ladies? You gonna take out the judge's bench, the jury box?" Ian strained his ears. Take out the benches?
There was a pause below. Then a woman's voice, low and pleasant. "Oh, you won't have to worry about that, Jerry." She laughed and, crouching against the metal grating of the walkway, Ian recognized the laugh he had heard earlier, only this time it was gentle and controlled.
"We'll get that done. What we want you to worry about is what help WGTV can give us in promoting the whole project. Can you give us free airtime besides the advertising we buy? We also need help hanging the show. Can you -- can any of you folks -- lend a hand in getting the kite show up? The museum will need lots of muscle."
Ian recognized that the woman was using her questions the same way the man had. But she was better at it; she flattered the man when she asked. Something about a museum. Ian thought about museums, full of old things -- dinosaur bones or dark paintings. But kites? She had said kites.
"If you can do those two things, Jerry, we'll worry about the benches. We'll worry about what to do with the judge's bench and the jury box." Then they were coming here -- for some sort of project.
Ian lowered himself to his stomach and lay there, arms tight against his body. Were he and his dad going to have company? Would these people come up to the second floor? Would Ian and his father have to leave?
Heat from the lights rose upward around him and the voices lifted upward around him. Momentarily his mind let go of the worry about his father. It was warm and kind in his spot on the narrow walkway.
"Here, Jan made these." Another man's voice. Ian was not lonely anymore, but his hunger came back. Below they were passing -- what? cookies? and, his nose seemed to tell him, apple juice or cider with cinnamon or nutmeg -- some comforting spice his grandmother had used in apple pie. Perhaps his hunger bad made him invent the smell. He did what he had learned to do with hunger, ran his tongue over his dry mouth. He imagined eating. He bit into a cookie; he lifted warm cider to his lips. He chewed. He swallowed. Then he took a forkful from an imaginary slice of apple pie.
Below, the Lady Leader laughed again. They all laughed, it seemed. Ian had missed a part of the conversation during his play-eating. Now he made himself concentrate on the voices again.
"I'll need some help with publicity," said one of the women through the merriment. "We don't have much time to get folks revved up."
"First things first," said someone else.
Their voices wove back and forth beneath him, sounds mingled with spices and cookies and comfort. Ian drifted and dozed; the warmth from the lamps softened his bones. His arms relaxed and one of them slid over the edge of the walkway before he yanked himself awake. He lurched up in a chill of panic just as the great lamps went out. It took a moment for the exit light to feather the instant dark with a dim glow. Ian held his breath. There was a cold quiet below him. Far away he heard a door slam.
How long had the voices been gone? He felt the emptiness of the great building below. But he waited until he was sure no one had come back for a forgotten glove or notebook before he made his way from the roof.
The Hall of Justice was one of the best places his father had ever found for them to live. The old railroad station had not been heated and time had melted day into night. The Hall of Justice was kept at fifty-five degrees and its many clocks still worked. "They don't want the place to deteriorate, historic monument like this," his father had said. "Our luck, boy."
There were toilets here, too. All over the place. And soap still in the dispensers and paper towels. One judge's chambers had a shower in the bathroom.
"We can't use too much," Ian's dad had said. "Leave no traces." So they were sparing with the soap and even dried out the paper towels for the next day.
"Use a different toilet each time," his father had said. "That way the rust won't disappear from flushing. We want to keep it looking as abandoned as everyone thinks it is." Occasionally they took a careful shower.
In the beginning with his father it had been fun. Ian didn't have to get up for school. It was the best kind of adventure because it was real, not play; there was excitement in hiding for real, in finding a place to live, in surviving. Maybe the cavemen felt like this, Ian used to think. He had admired his father, who seemed so self-sufficient and clever. The hardest things had been not talking to people and being hungry a lot.
"Man can survive on very little," his father had told him. But Ian missed French fries, homemade cookies, and breakfast in a warm kitchen. He missed his grandmother's blue sugar bowl. He missed chatting with people, feeling the warmth of their interest. He still admired his father, but Ian's life was no longer the adventure it had been when he was only eight. Often he found himself envying kids going to school, walking dogs, yelling to one another. Being hungry was no fun. Not having a blanket was no fun.
They spent a lot of time in the public library, especially in winter. It was warm there. Ian's father liked to read and he stayed for hours among the history books or in the how-to section, letting Ian visit the large children's library upstairs. His father had instructed Ian to tell people he was homeschooled. That's why he wasn't in a regular school. They often used up the whole day at the library, reading, using the computer and the bathroom. Ian worried that the librarian would notice him enjoying baby books with lots of pictures. Once, during the first winter that he had been with his father, he had asked a young librarian for books for a nine-year-old. He wanted to know what kids in the fourth grade were reading. He had been a good reader in third grade. To his relief, the books weren't much harder. Words he didn't know he wrote down with a library pencil and looked them up. He enjoyed using the dictionary; it was what he thought real home-schooling would be like. Often he made up spelling tests for himself, wishing for a red pencil to mark 100% at the top of the library scrap paper. He couldn't take books out, but he had no comfortable place to take them to anyway. Even the Hall of Justice didn't invite reading.
Down in the old circuit courtroom, the smell of cinnamon and apples hung in the air; his nose had not been wrong. Ian discovered the intruders had forgotten to take the cookies! They sat, loosely covered with plastic wrap, in the center of a long bench in the third row. His mouth running saliva, he eased out two. Leave no traces. Then he took another one, careful not to disturb the plastic covering. There were a lot left, and he was certain the three wouldn't be noticed. He could even take four.
The four cookies made him hungrier, but he forced himself to walk away. He crept along the main hallway, crouching to pass by the windows of the wide entrance doors, then paused in front of the elevator. His father would most likely come through one of the side doors less visible in the block-long building, or he might use the hidden door by the north stairway. That was the best spot for coming and going. It was at the end of the outdoor concourse and hidden by a planter with trees that rose beside the broad entrance steps.
Ian had been stealthily pacing the halls for the past two nights and, standing in front of the elevator, he felt in his bones that his father would not return tonight. Despite instructions to stay put, he knew he would have to leave the building. The box of crackers, the peanut butter, and the milk they kept cold outside on a window ledge had been gone since yesterday. Ian didn't know where he would find something to eat, but he didn't dare wait until the town shut down around ten. First, he would need to get a key.
He listened for any sounds of life in the building before he took the elevator. It was a treat he and his dad...
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.
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Book Description Scholastic Inc., 1999. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110439146070
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