The summer Andy disappeared started out the same way summers had since I was ten—with a Sunday afternoon airplane ride to visit Gran Ryan. The flight was smooth and fast, the same as usual. The only difference from the past five trips was that Andy was with me.
He wasn’t too much trouble, even for a nine year old genius. He was just my klutzy little brother. I didn’t mind watching out for him. Not too much. Anyway, who else was there? Mom and Brent-The-Blond were living the golden life in California and Dad worked all the time at the accounting firm. I was all Andy had.
He tugged his seatbelt and bounced on the bench seat as I guided Gran’s ancient red pickup away from the airport. Gran sat on the other side of him, calm as always.
I clenched both hands around the steering wheel and concentrated on not getting lost in the airport’s circular maze. I’d gotten my learner’s permit last month, the day after I turned fifteen. This was the first time I’d driven with anyone except Dad or my teacher. I wished I could drive the way Gran did, with one elbow resting on the edge of the doorframe, casual and confident.
Maybe in fifty years.
The breeze, hot and sandy as Florida’s beaches, gushed through the open windows. Gran’s curly white hair flared away from her face. The hairstyle was new. She looked different. Then the scent of her lilac perfume floated across the pickup cab. I breathed it in. After the upheaval of the past year, the familiar fragrance was a balm.
Gran pointed to the next exit. “Turn right there.”
I eased the truck onto the eight-lane highway. I tensed again, my muscles stiffening into hard knots. “Maybe you should be driving, Gran.”
“You’re doing fine. Did I tell you I’m glad you’re here? Both of you.”
“You’re lucky we are.” I flinched when a heavy truck swooshed past in the left lane. “I could’ve spent the summer in Paris.”
“Yeah. I won the trip in an essay contest.”
Andy stilled. He always got quiet when I lied. The dumber the lie, the quieter he got.
“Your dad didn’t mention that,” Gran said.
“He wouldn’t. Andy couldn’t go to Paris with me and Dad wanted to get rid of both of us for the summer.”
Behind us, a jet screamed into the air. I ducked. I was afraid to take my hand off the steering wheel to crank up the window.
“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Gran said.
“I would.” My voice was flat, hard. Angry. And sad too, which was confusing.
When Dad said he wanted me to take Andy to Gran’s for the annual summer vacation, I’d jumped at the chance to get away. Why had I thought leaving home would mean leaving the sadness behind?
Andy studied his sneakers, probably wishing the conversation was over. One of his shoes had come unfastened when he climbed into the truck. He would lose it the minute we got out at Gran’s house. Assuming I managed to get us to Gran’s house in one piece.
Another heavy truck thundered past. I white-knuckled the steering wheel and drove over the Pithlocoochee Creek Bridge and onto the exit. The skinny two-lane road would take us the last few miles to Sea Cove.
With the rush of traffic left behind, I quit strangling the steering wheel. I glanced at Gran. She was chewing her lower lip. That was a sure sign she was figuring out the best way to phrase whatever lesson she wanted to dump on me. She was a semi-retired English teacher and she had an arsenal of words she could use.
She found the right ones. “Your dad told me he’s been working a lot of hours and he thought the two of you would have more fun spending the summer with me.”
I snorted. “In other words, he wanted to get both of us out of his hair, like I said. Why do adults always think they have to make the truth sound nice?”
“Adults don’t always think that. When they do, it’s called tact.”
“Which is another word for lying. Or is it okay when you’re over eighteen?”
She wouldn’t, any more than she’d forget the whopper of a lie I’d come up with a week ago. Dad had told her about that one when he called to make sure he could still unload Andy and me on her for the summer.
“Do you know what a liar’s punishment is?” Gran asked.
“Sure. Babysitting your little genius brother in Old Fogeyville for the summer.”
She grinned. Rudeness never ruffled Gran. She believed people only smarted off when they knew they were wrong but didn’t want to admit it.
“Nope. A liar’s punishment is far worse than that.”
“What could possibly be worse?”
“You’re bright enough to figure it out.”
“I already have. Too bad no one believes me.”
Gran chuckled. “Having you around this summer will sure liven up Old Fogeyville.”
“I thought we were going to Sea Cove,” Andy said.
“We are,” I said. “I was being funny.”
“Not very,” he said.
Sometimes I thought he should have been named Aleck.
The view from the front windshield changed as I drove. The scorched beaches gave way to dry pastures, herds of rangy cattle, and the stench of hot manure. In another ten minutes we’d reach Sea Cove and the scenery would change again. Then we’d be surrounded by the sparkling blue-green water of the Gulf of Mexico and the salty scent of the sea.
“So what am I supposed to do here in the boondocks this summer?” I asked. “Besides babysit.”
“The same activities you’ve always enjoyed,” Gran said. “Have fun. Be a kid.”
“I’m not a kid anymore.”
“Okay. Then you can have fun and be an adult. I bought a new computer. You can use it to research your investment account.”
That sounded promising.
Because Dad was dead set against me getting a job like a normal fifteen year old, I’d asked him to open a mutual fund account for me. Then I’d begun investing my allowance. My ridiculously tiny allowance. The paltry amount was Mom’s fault. The family budget had plunged to new lows when she left.
I planned to make enough with my investing to pay part of my college tuition since Dad couldn’t help much and Mom wouldn’t. I enjoyed the research, the statistics, the financial decision-making.
Go figure. I was an accountant’s daughter and I liked being in charge of my own money. I liked even better that the numbers never lied to me.
“Maybe you’ll find the Morgan pirate treasure this year,” Gran said. “That’d be a nice addition to your savings.”
“Pirate treasure?” Andy asked.
“You can’t expect to keep me busy with juvenile myths, Gran.” But what if—I shook off the twinge of hope. Pirate treasure was not real. “Besides, if the treasure hasn’t been found by now, I doubt it ever will be.”
“It takes the right person. Someone who believes.”
“Lots of people have believed. None of them ever found any treasure.”
“They were driven by greed. That never works out well.” Gran reached for the truck’s radio and punched a preset button. She began humming along with a song that had been ancient when Dad was a baby.
“You never mentioned pirate treasure, Josey.” Andy’s voice was high-pitched with excitement. He was probably imagining wood chests overflowing with gold doubloons, pieces of eight, chain ropes of gold and silver, diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds.
In past years I’d imagined that too. No more. Once Mom left, I gave up silly fantasies of vast riches and instant wealth. Dreamers untouched by life’s realities might be foolish enough to believe in fairy tales—or pirate’s gold. Not me. After watching Dad struggle to get a grip on his shattered life, I knew better. There was no happily ever after.
“I didn’t think you’d care. It’s a myth, not a math equation. Anyway, I don’t tell you lots of stuff.”
“Tell me now. What pirate treasure?”
“The Morgan pirate treasure.” Gran switched off the radio and launched into the story.
I stared out the windshield, pretending not to listen.
The basic tale hadn’t changed since the first time I’d heard it, though Gran had added a few embellishments. I wondered who she’d been practicing on, then remembered she was on call as a substitute teacher for the Sea Cove school system. Thanks to her, generations of Sea Cove residents knew the legend of Alastair Morgan, a pirate who’d haunted the Florida coast during the early 1800s.
Andy jiggled on the seat. He had a vivid imagination, a by-product of his oversize I.Q., and he was caught up in the midst of the hurricane Gran was describing. The huge storm had blown the Morgan pirate ship off course and into Sea Cove.
“Alastair Morgan was familiar with Sea Cove,” Gran said. “He sought refuge in the harbor. When the skies lightened, the rain slowed. He rowed to shore with his son, some of his crew and seven trunks of gold and jewels. They had buried the treasure and were rowing back to their ship when the storm started again.”
“Didn’t he realize the calm was only the eye of the hurricane?” Andy asked.
“Good question, and no, he didn’t. He was surprised when the winds and rain picked up, only from the opposite direction.”
“Silly of him. He should have known. Being a sailor and all.”
Gran met my gaze over Andy’s head. Her lips twitched.
I grinned, forgetting for a moment how annoyed I was. By the time I remembered, Gran had looked away, out the front windshield.
She gasped. “Brake, Josey!”
I jerked my head around. I’d only been distracted for a second—exactly enough time for the truck to drift to the right side of the road. A skinny teenage boy walked there, his back to us.
“We’re going to hit him!” Andy shouted.
I leaned on the horn, smashed the brake, and yanked the wheel to the left. The tires screeched. The seatbelt dug into my hips. Andy shouted again as an invisible force shoved him back, then forward. Gran shot out her arm to hold him in place.
In front of us, the boy whirled. He yelled and raised his palms toward us as if he could ward off the truck with his bare hands. At the last moment, he flung himself onto the dirty sand beyond the edge of the black pavement.
I lost sight of him as the pickup jolted to a shuddering, shaking stop, sideways across the highway.
In her calm teacher’s voice, Gran said, “Straighten the truck out and pull off the road before another car comes along.”
Her words didn’t sink in for a long moment. Then I stomped the gas pedal and whipped the wheel in a circle. The truck leapt forward and we all jolted back in the seat. I eased off the gas, guided the truck to the shoulder, put it in park, and shut off the engine.
“Everybody all right?” Gran asked.
“No,” I said, at the same moment Andy said, “Yeah!”
Andy clapped his hands. “That was better than a roller coaster. Did you see him jump? He was fast!”
Luckily for us all.
My breath jerked in and out. In a newer vehicle, the air bags would have deployed and we’d be enveloped in white fabric. A voice would be talking to us from the dash, sounding concerned and offering to send help.
But all that surrounded us in Gran’s old truck was hot air and the stink of burnt rubber. I trembled. In my mind, I could still hear the blare of the horn, the shriek of the tires. What had happened to the skinny boy? Was he hurt?
I didn’t want to look; didn’t want to see his bloody, crumpled body.
I grabbed my phone. “I’ll call emergency.”
“Wait a minute. Stay here with Andy.” Gran unbuckled her seatbelt and pushed the door open. She stepped onto the hot ribbon of pavement. “Now where in the world?”
Still gripping my phone, I risked a glance in the rear view mirror. Andy twisted in his seat.
The boy was nowhere in sight.
Gran walked to the spot where the black tire marks marred the road. She shielded her eyes and stared at the beach. Then she came back and climbed in the truck.
“Where’d he go?” I asked.
“Down the beach. He’s running toward Sea Cove.”
“Should I call emergency now?”
“No? What if he’s hurt?”
“Then you’ll be arrested,” Andy said.
“You didn’t hit him,” Gran said. “If he’d been hurt by his fall—or jump—he couldn’t have run away so fast. Besides, I’m sure he’d rather not have the police involved. That boy is allergic to authority.”
“You know him?”
“Not exactly.” Gran touched Andy’s arm. “You sure you’re okay, kiddo?”
“Then let’s head home. I have fresh-baked frosted oatmeal cookies waiting for you.”
“So we drive away like nothing happened?” I asked.
“Yes. I’ll talk to Sheriff Hollister later.”
I glanced again in the rear view mirror at the empty road behind us, then looked through the front windshield. The whole terrifying event played out in my mind’s eye. I shuddered. “I think you should drive the rest of the way, Gran.”
“Nonsense. We’ll sit here until you’re calm. Then you’ll take us home.”
“Sure you can.” Gran poked Andy with one finger. “You know, you were right. It was silly of Alastair Morgan not to realize he was in the eye of the hurricane. Not knowing cost him most of his crew and his ship.”
“He must have survived, though,” Andy said. “Otherwise there wouldn’t be a legend.”
Gran chuckled. “Right again. He, his son, and what remained of his crew drifted out to sea in rowboats. They were picked up by a Spanish galleon several days later.” She paused, waiting.
Andy had been a teacher’s pet all his life. He asked, “Did he draw a map so he could find the treasure again?”
“He did. But he died before he could get back to Sea Cove.”
“I bet the Spanish captain made them all walk the plank.” Andy grinned. Despite the genius label, he loved gore as much as any nine year old boy. “They probably got eaten by sharks. Torn apart limb by limb.”
“Hmmm,” Gran said. “What actually happened is a mystery, as is why his son never returned for the jewels. At any rate, the map still exists. It’s been on exhibit at the Sea Cove Museum for years. But no one’s ever found the treasure.”
“And no one ever will.” I twisted the key in the ignition. “Because it doesn’t exist.”
“How do you know?” Andy asked.
“Logic. Alastair Morgan would have tried to keep the Spanish sailors from killing him. He’d say whatever he thought they wanted to hear so he wouldn’t have to walk the plank—like making up a story about buried treasure and drawing a map so they would think they could find it.”
“Maybe,” Gran said. “But there’s no indication the Spanish ship came back to Sea Cove. And there are mysterious markings around the edge of the map no one has been able to decipher.”
“You mean like navigational directions?” Andy asked. “Latitude and longitude?”
I put the truck in gear, checked for traffic, and pulled out onto the highway.
“They could be sextant readings,” Gran said. “You know what a sextant is, Andy?”
“Sure. Early sailors used them to determine latitude and longitude by measuring the angle between the horizon and the sun or a star. Latitude told them the distance north or south from the earth’s equator and longitude told them the distance east or west of the meridian.”
“The what?” I asked.
“The meridian. It’s an imaginary circle around the earth,” Andy said. “It goes through the north and south poles. It’s like starting at zero. You can measure your location by how far away from it you are.”
“Sure you can.”
Sometimes Andy sounded like one of those academic journals he used to research the homework for his pre-college coursework. Even more amazing was the fact that he wasn’t simply repeating what he’d read. He understood what he was saying.
“That’s right,” Gran said. “But over the years no one’s been able to find the exact spot in Sea Cove defined by the map’s marks. So now there’s another theory. Some people think the marks are paces and depths.”
“Some people are crazy.” A car went by in the opposite direction and I gripped the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles ached. “Do you listen to them too?”
“I read an article about Billy Bowlegs Rogers last summer,” Andy said. “One of his treasures was found in Choctawhatchee Bay years ago. The location was identified by markings on rocks and brass spikes hammered into tree trunks. An old parchment spelled out how many paces to take in certain directions.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And what was there had to be removed using electronic locators and lots of heavy equipment.”
“But there was a treasure. Just think, Josey. If we could find that kind of treasure, it’d be worth lots of money. Maybe Dad wouldn’t have to work so hard. Maybe he’d have more time to spend with us. Maybe Mom would come home.”
Gran chewed her lip again, but for once her extensive vocabulary failed her.
I didn’t speak either.
My little brother was a genius, all right.
But he was also only nine.
HL Carpenter is a mother/daughter writing team. Their young adult novel, Pirate Summer, is available at Amazon.