Over Sea, Under Stone (Susan Cooper)

Where did that cover come from? Between trips to Kansas, I stopped by the Republican Retirement Ranch, a collection of condominiums (condominia?) populated by the "past-enriched." Leadbelly -- my great uncle on my sister's side -- has lived there for about six years now. But I hear California calling and I can't leave without my imaginary relatives. So I was bound and determined to help my dear Great Uncle prepare for relocation.

He had asked me to bring a tape measure along. When I handed it to him, his eyes lit up and he took me out into the hallway.

"Where're we going?" I asked.

"To do some measuring."

"In the hall? I thought you were packing."

He just grunted and shuffled down to the corner where his condo ended at a crossing hallway.

"Hold this here." He handed me the end of the tape and dragged the measure down the wall.

"What are you doing?" There was just the slightest touch of whine in my voice. I had this horrible image of Leadbelly tearing down the wall to get his recliner out.

"If you must know..." He paused to tap on the wall. I doubt he could hear anything with those old hearing aids. He moved his head about four inches down the hall and tapped again. "I believe there's a secret passage."

"There's no secret passage, Great Uncle. This is a modern building. And even if it were some old manor house or something, there would still probably be no secret passage. Where do you get these ideas?" He grunted. I knew exactly where he got these ideas. "Which book did you read this time?"

"Just because I happened to have recently read Over Sea, Under Stone doesn't mean it gave me any notions I didn't already have."

"It's just a coincidence that the kids in that book find a secret room with a map to the Holy Grail? You know those kids were not exactly living in an old folks' home."

He huffed. "We prefer the term 'Habitat for the Extra-Experienced."

"Whatever, there just isn't adventure around every corner." I don't ever say 'whatever' in real life, you know. I watched Great Uncle Leadbelly take out a pen and make a mark on the wall near the corner. "I remember what drove me nuts about that book, now! The little brat defaced a book!"

"What?" He looked up from the crooked line he had drawn on the wall.

"She did. Jane, the girl. She found an old book and actually wrote in it. I nearly had a heart attack."

"Oh, horrors!" Leadbelly put his fingertips to his mouth and moaned. "A little bit of pencil scraping in a dirty old book."

"Doesn't matter." I stomped around in a little circle. "Gosh. Kids these days just have no respect."

"You're aware that book was written before you were born, lad?"

"Only just."

"Still." He stared at me for a second. "I don't know where you get that streak of rule-abiding from. It must come from your Great Aunt. You have got to embrace adventure, my boy."

"Why were you reading a middle grade book anyway?" I tried to rub the pen mark away, but I only smeared it.

"Are you pulling my cow, boy? This is the first book I've ever read with a positive portrayal of a poor, disrespected lot."

"Don't be so dramatic. Who's disrespected?"

"Great uncles." The kids in the book - two brothers and a sister -- did their adventuring under the guidance of a great uncle. I'm not so sure he was the best influence on them, to be honest.

"Disrespected? Are you kidding me? Have you ever read a negative portrayal of great uncles?"

"Aside from your little stories?"

"OK, fine. Shouldn't you be packing?"

"Look, about that."

I waited. Leadbelly looked around. Two older women were advancing down the hall, arm-in-arm, toward us with excruciating slowness. He looked at the floor. He scratched his head.

"You're stalling. What?"

"I don't want to move to California."

"What? Why not?"

"Uh. It's a blue state."

"Oh, Great Uncle, you live in a blue state already. Hasn't anybody told you about Maryland?"

"OK, OK, I'm worried I won't make any friends."

"You don't have any friends now, Great Uncle. You don't like people, remember?"

"I'm just comfortable here is all."

"Oh, dear imaginary relative. Have you lost your sense of adventure so soon? We might find caves with hidden treasure up in the Sierra Nevadas."

"Never-the-," Leadbelly started.

The women had arrived in our neck of the woods. They had spent a minute or two studying the wall. They took a deep breath in unison. "Excuse me. But have you two noticed this graffito here?" They spoke in unison, too.

"Looks like a smudge to me," Great Uncle Leadbelly replied.

"Oh, we're not so sure, are we Margaret?"

"Oh, no, Helen. By the bylaws, if it has ink, it's vandalism. We're going to have to assemble the authorities. Did you see anyone around here? You'll have to stand as a witness, of course. Let this sort of thing get out of hand and before you know it, the ATF will be in here burning down the place."

"I'm sorry," Great Uncle Leadbelly interrupted. "I'm afraid we won't be of much help to your investigation. My nephew and I were just taking a break from packing. I hear California calling, don't you know."

And we hustled back to the condo to find some boxes and prepare for adventure.

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