Authors: Alan Cumyn
House of Anansi Press
Copyright Â© 2004 by Alan Cumyn
Published in Canada and the USA in 2004 by Groundwood Books
New paperback edition published 2008
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This edition published in 2013 by
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press Inc.
110 Spadina Avenue, Suite 801
Toronto, ON, M5V 2K4
or c/o Publishers Group West
1700 Fourth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
After Sylvia / by Alan Cumyn.
Sequel to The secret life of Owen Skye.
ISBN-13: 978-0-88899-868-2Â Â Â ISBN-10: 0-88899-868-6Â Â Â ISBN 978-1-55498-472-5 (ebook)
PS8555.U489A9 2008Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â jC813'.54Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â C2007-907132-5
Cover illustration by Caroline Hamel
Cover design by Michael Solomon
We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF).
For Anna and Gwen
could not sleep. He lay in the dark in the middle of the big bed that he shared with his brothers, Andy and Leonard. It was early September, the night before the first day of school, but the wind that shivered the walls threatened to blow everything into winter.
Summer holidays were ending! The fact of it had loomed over everything for the past several days, and the boys had raced to all the great places â to Dead Man's Hill, to the river, the woods, the haunted house and the railroad tracks â in an effort to squeeze the last drops of adventure from the season.
Now summer was draining away. Owen stared at the ceiling of the attic bedroom and racked his brain trying to think of something, anything, to delay the dreadful start of school.
“What about the crystal radio?” he whispered.
“Shhh!” Leonard said. “It's time for sleep!” He was the youngest and so knew the least about the horrors of education.
“We haven't tried the crystal radio in ages,” Owen insisted. Last winter â it seemed like years ago â the boys had used the set
to intercept messages from alien spacecraft.
“The radios been put away,” Andy said in a tired voice. Normally he would have been the one to suggest hauling it out in a situation like this, but even he seemed resigned to the end of the season.
“I know where it is,” Owen said. It was in a shoe box in the corner of their closet.
Owen slept in the middle, so to get out he had to crawl over Leonard and then creep to the closet in the darkness. The wooden floor was cold on his toes, and the closet door creaked badly when he opened it. Dust from the shoe box made him sneeze twice.
“You three go to sleep!” the boys' father, Horace, shouted from downstairs, and Owen held his breath.
On the next sneeze Owen plugged his nose and swallowed the explosion, popping his ears painfully. But there was no more comment from downstairs, so he reached forward until his fingers felt the hard corners of the shoe box. He took it and slowly, carefully, crawled around the bed to the window. When he pulled off the lid, out sprang a tangled mess of antenna wire. Owen pulled it clear in handfuls, then lifted out the crystal radio set itself.
It was a thing of beauty. It had a varnished wooden base with a large metal coil on the side and even more brass knobs than Owen knew what to do with.
Normally Andy operated it. Owen wasn't sure how to attach the antenna wire, which was a fairly new addition. He had seen Andy hook an end of wire around one of the brass knobs and then run the rest over the curtain rod and across to the light switch near the door. But which knob should Owen attach it to? And would he be able to untangle the wire enough to reach the switch?
Owen wanted to ask Andy for advice, but the older boy was pretending to sleep now, snoring and snorting even louder than usual. So Owen chose one knob at random on the set, attached an end of wire and pulled the rest of the tangle as far as he could over the curtain rod. He climbed on a chair and looped part of it around the overhead light, then ran the rest to the sailing ship lamp that was mounted on the wall a few feet above the boys' bed.
“It won't work like that,” Andy muttered between fake snores.
“How do you know?” Owen said.
“It just won't.”
Owen ignored him and returned to the radio set. There was dead silence from the tiny speaker. Outside, the wind was racing thin gray clouds across the dark sky. For a moment Owen thought he heard low rattles and indistinct stutters, but it was Leonard tossing in bed and creaking the old frame.
“Try adjusting the clip,” Andy whispered. “You can move it along the coil.”
Owen peered at the complicated instrument until finally, in the shadows, he could just make out the clip that Andy had mentioned. It was a wire from the speaker that was attached to one of the coils, and Owen saw that it could be undipped and moved to a different coil.
As soon as Owen moved the clip, it sounded like birds had flown into the room.
“What's that?” Leonard moaned. “I'm trying to get to sleep!”
“It's birds,” Owen said. “Birds on the radio!”
Many different birds, it seemed. Some of them warbled and others trilled. There were high, looping calls and soft, burbly murmurs like stream water rushing over stones.
In a few seconds Andy was beside him, ears trained on the soft noises, and then Leonard, too, poked his head close to the little speaker.
The sound was low but distinct. Andy told Owen that if he hooked up the battery, they could boost the speaker power and hear better. But the battery didn't seem to be in the box.
“Why would birds be on the radio?” Owen asked.
“Maybe they took over the station,” Leonard said.
“Don't be ridiculous,” Andy said. “Birds can't take over a station!”
“Why not?” Leonard asked. “They take over trees. They take over telephone poles. We have no idea what they're talking about.”
Owen looked outside to see if masses of birds were whirling through the sky, preparing to occupy the house. But the sky was clear.
“Those birds sound familiar,” Leonard said.
“Familiar!” Andy said, twisting the word to make it seem ridiculous. “Friends of yours? Birds that you've met?”
“I don't know,” Leonard said cautiously. “It's just that.
The birds stopped singing on the radio then and Owen heard voices, very low. One of them was an announcer saying, “That was a taste of nature from one of the best bird-whistlers in the county.” And the other...
“That's Uncle Lorne!” Owen blurted, and the brothers looked at one another in amazement.
Then the house shook with the sound of heavy feet on the stairs, and all three boys dove for the bed together. They were still writhing when their father pushed open the door, and a sudden shaft of light from the hall split the room.
“What are you three up to?” Horace asked darkly.
Owen clung to his brothers in tense, unbreathing stillness.
“Is there a bird in here?” Horace asked then.
The crystal radio had started throbbing again.
Owen sat up and announced, “It's Uncle Lorne!” But Andy instantly pulled him back down.
“What are you talking about?” Horace asked, stepping farther into the room.
Owen saw him in a blurry way, through half-clenched eyes
Horace was not normally an angry father, but lately he could blow into a sudden storm over little things â a broken window, spilled ketchup, a story on the news.
Just then the bird noises surged in volume, and Owen wondered if Andy had suddenly found and hooked up the battery after all.
“It is birds!” Horace said. He walked over to the window to look out, but bumped into the tangle of antenna wires instead.
“Careful!” Owen said, sitting up now and not pretending to be asleep at all. “It's Uncle Lorne on the crystal radio.”
Horace freed himself from the jumble of wires and put a big ear close to the puny speaker.
“How do you turn this thing up?” he asked.
So Andy rummaged through the back of the closet and brought out his big battery. When he hooked up the terminals, the whistling filled the room like a whole flock.
“It is Lorne!” Horace said. “I haven't heard him whistle like that in years.” Then he, too, started to whistle, though his music wasn't full and convincing like Lorne's.
In a few minutes the boys' mother blew into the room.
“What's going on?” Margaret demanded. “Why is everyone up? School starts tomorrow! Back to bed
She had such snap to her voice that they all jumped. But only Horace moved away from the radio.
“It's Lorne,” Horace said in the soft voice he used to try to calm her.
“Whistling like a bunch of birds!” Owen declared.
“Who?” Margaret asked, and she walked straight into the antenna wire.
Then she screamed, and in the confusion pulled the sailing ship lamp off the wall and onto the bed where the boys had been just moments before. The lightbulb smashed against the bed frame and burning sparks shot into the air and filled the room with angry, choking smoke.
“Hands off! Those wires are live!” Horace commanded, and he pushed Margaret to safety. “Stay where you are!” He turned to the boys, who were trapped behind the electrified antenna wire and the smoking wreck of the sailing ship lamp. “Don't move an inch! Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Andy said immediately, for them all. It was a direct order and Owen felt himself stiffening as if standing at attention. The window was behind them and there really wasn't anywhere they
go. The antenna wire, ominously crackling, was looped over the curtain rod just above their heads, and the burning line to the bed cut off their escape.
In a second Horace was gone from the room.
Leonard started to whimper, and Margaret told him to stay very still.
“You'll be all right,” she said, but her voice didn't sound all right. It sounded like a tree about to crack in a storm.
The boys' blanket was smoking badly now, and Owen could barely see his mother standing beyond the wires. It was hard not to cough, and his eyes
smarted. Leonard started to wriggle beside him and came dangerously close to touching the wire.
“Open the window so you can breathe better,”
Margaret said tensely. “Andy, you know how to do it. Just turn in your place.”
Andy and Owen moved together, and in a moment they had the window open. It wasn't so difficult as long as they didn't panic. Owen had a good seven inches between him and electrocution.
But with the window open all the smoke rushed into the boys' faces, and soon the three of them were coughing even worse than before.
“Stay calm! Don't move!” Margaret screamed at them. She seemed helpless over there in the smoke.
How suddenly everything had changed, Owen thought. Just a few moments ago they had been listening to bird songs on the radio.
Owen looked out the window. He had often imagined pulling himself out onto the ledge and reaching across to the drainpipe that might hold a boy his size but then again might not. Yet he had never climbed down a drainpipe before. Tree limbs, yes, but not drainpipes. He might lose his grip, plunge to the ground and break his neck, or worse.
Owen wondered where his father had gone. In the middle of an emergency he had just run away. And the smoke was mounting. They were all going to choke to death standing where they were.
One boy had to climb down the drainpipe.
It should have been Andy, because he was the oldest, strongest, bravest, and by far the best climber. But Andy was frozen, standing still right where he'd been ordered by their mother, who clearly didn't understand the full danger of the situation.
And so, Owen realized, they were all going to die.
Unless he did something.
He pulled himself out the window onto the ledge and gripped with the edges of his toes. It was so cold! He reached as far as he could and hit nothing but empty air. Then at last he felt the wooden side of the house, which he gripped as if his life depended on it. And it did! All their lives, now, depended on his fingers finding the old drainpipe.
It was too far!
He had to untighten his toes and move his reluctant feet along the ledge, closer, closer. Every step was agony. His body was clenched in fear, and the simplest thing â straightening his arm â felt impossible.
“What are you doing?” Andy yelled to him from inside.
Owen reached the drainpipe at last. He knew if he hesitated, even slightly he'd never be able to do it, so he grabbed and swung immediately.
For a moment he felt his body suspended in blackness with nothing beneath him, his fingers clutched to the flimsiest tin piping. Then his toes were banging wildly against the house until they, too, gripped the groaning drainpipe, and he was completely free of the ledge, like a worm clutching a leaf in a windstorm.
“Mom says get back in here right now!” Andy shouted.
Too late! Owen was suspended far above the earth, being held up by something that had no right to support his weight. Consumed with the effort to hang on, he found he couldn't speak, much less work his way down to the ground.
“The fire's out!” Andy yelled. “Dad turned off the electricity!”
Margaret's head appeared at the window.
“Owen Skye! Get back in here right now!” she ordered.
He wanted to, very much, but the ledge was a terrible stretch away. It was also slightly above him, for he had fallen a bit in his leap of faith, and his body was reluctant to do anything at the moment that required unclenching.
“I can't,” he said in a little voice.
A bracket came loose from the wall then, and the drainpipe groaned. It started to sway away from the window.' Owen thrust his bare feet against the wall and somehow stopped the slide.
“Dad's gone to get the ladder!” Andy yelled.
But the more Owen thought about it, the more he realized that Horace would never get the ladder in time. It was in the garage, wedged behind the sawhorse and the wheelbarrow and a rusting baby carriage that had been there when the Skyes had moved in years ago.
The drainpipe swayed even farther. The bracket was only going to last a few more seconds. Horace was probably still looking for a flashlight in the dark to see where the ladder might be.
Why was everything going wrong?
Owen closed his eyes and imagined Sylvia Tull sitting all the way across the classroom from him as she had in school every year before this one. She was the kind of girl â well, no, she was the only girl â who drove blood up Owen's face with a simple glance, and baked his ears tomato red, and made speech barely possible. He thought of all the hours he had spent imagining an airplane crashing through the window, and how he had planned to spring across the chaos of that moment and throw her under a desk, shield her from disaster with his body.