My name is Troy Cooper. I’m eleven years old. I live in Bradenton, Florida. I’ve got a story to tell you that you probably won’t believe. That’s OK. Most people never believe anything I say anyway. The way I figure it, that means it doesn’t matter what I talk about. No one really listens. So, who cares if I’m always truthful? Mom says that just makes the problem worse because people hear me saying I don’t care if they believe me or not, so they just assume I’m always lying. That kind of argument just makes me care a little less about what other people think. If they think I’m lying all the time, then fine. It’s no loss of mine if they miss out on the truth when I lay it all out for them. When I first started talking about the stuff I’m about to tell you, nobody around here believed it, even though some folks saw part of it with their own eyes. People believe what they want to believe. Anything that doesn’t fit what they think the world should look like just gets thrown away as a mistake, a misunderstanding, confusion, or a lie. Call me a liar if you like. I don’t care. I’m past all of that. I’ve seen things and been through stuff that most people can’t even imagine. I know the truth. If you want to hear it, then listen up.
I guess I need to back up a bit from where the story gets interesting to tell you a little about myself. It might help you understand why I did some of the things I did and where I’m coming from with all of this. Like I said, you’re not going to believe it. I guess that means I might be wasting my time, but I feel like I need to tell somebody about it. I guess I’ll tell you, even though you probably think I’m a liar already.
I’m a smart kid. No, I’m not bragging. It’s true. I read everything I can get my hands on and I remember nearly all of it word for word. I remember most of what I see and hear, too. That’s how I can tell you this story straight from memory and know I’ve got it all right. Reading is the best, though. If I read it and enjoy it, it’s locked away for good. I’ve been reading novels since the second grade, and I go through a dozen or more thick ones every year. All that reading has given me a big vocabulary–bigger than most grown-ups. Sometimes adults think I’m being a smart-aleck when I speak in terms that fly over their heads, but I’m not. I’m just trying to communicate. It’s not my fault I’m smarter than most people. They should try to catch up. I’m not going back for them. I also like to write. You already know that. I’m writing this down for you now, right?
I’m tough, too. I have to be. I’m in the eighth grade. I know. Eleven years old usually puts you in the sixth grade, but I’ve skipped a couple of grades along the way. (I told you I was smart.) I kept getting in trouble in the early grades because my teachers couldn’t keep me occupied. I would fly through my work and then spend all my spare time in class thinking of new and exciting ways to torment my classmates and teachers. They got tired of it. Parents complained. I complained.
During one of my many trips to the school office, I told Mr. Lady, the school principal, that I was bored with his dumb old school, and he could expel me for all I cared. After a lot of counseling time with my parents, Mr. Lady decided I was worth keeping in the school and that the best thing would be for me to skip a grade. He didn’t fool me for a second. I think he hated me for all the trouble I was causing. He just wanted to keep me in the school because I absolutely roasted all those worthless standardized tests the state and county felt compelled to foist upon elementary school students. I brought the average scores of the entire school up a notch. Mr. Lady did not want to lose that benefit by doing something rash, like encouraging my parents to try putting me in a private school.
That all happened when I was in the first grade. I got moved to the second grade during the first quarter of that school year. That means that my novel reading I spoke about before began at an age when most kids are in first grade, not second. Second grade turned out to be just as unchallenging as first grade, so they had me skip third grade and go straight to fourth.
After that, I paced myself. I didn’t want to skip any more grades. Some of the other kids resented me for my talents and took out that resentment in the form of beatings. The more out of sync my age and current grade level became, the worse that kind of thing got. That’s what made me tough. I learned how to fight when I had to. More importantly, I learned how to avoid fights when I could. The key was to do as much damage as possible to the other kid when cornered, so that the next bully would think twice before picking on me. If I got trapped by a bully and was forced to fight, I fought viciously and dirtily. Kicks to the crotch and fingers to the eye were not only justifiable but among my favorite moves in battle. I got black eyes and split lips on a few occasions, but over time the attacks subsided. I wasn’t worth the trouble. I was a mean little smart-aleck that most kids just avoided. At least that’s the reputation I built. I’m not mean and I’m not a complete smart-aleck, but I don’t have to fight to prove anything to anyone anymore.
Now that I’m in middle school, I’ve kind of dialed back on my attitude a little. Middle school is tough, but it’s tough for everybody. I’m finding out that it’s better to build up a bunch of allies than to make a lot of enemies.
I don’t have a lot of what you would call close friends. I only have one real friend. That’s Molly McPherson. Molly is in the sixth grade, but she’s my same age. We don’t have any classes together at school. I hardly ever see her there. She lives in my neighborhood and has lived there for as long as I can remember. She lives on the street behind my house. Our houses don’t line up exactly. By that I mean they’re not back-to-back. There are a few houses in between, but it’s easy enough to get from my house to hers without having to go in the street. When we were younger and not allowed to walk or ride our bikes on the road, that was important.
I met Molly in pre-school. That was before the grade-skipping stuff started. We were four years old. I’m not sure why, but we kind of latched onto each other right away and became best friends. Molly is cool. She never gave me any grief about how much I loved to read as a little kid. She never got jealous when I got moved ahead of her in school. She was just always my friend. She still is. It’s not like a boyfriend-girlfriend kind of thing. We really are just best friends. I can tell Molly anything. If I ask her to keep a secret, she will. If I get upset and cry in front of her, she doesn’t make fun of me. If I’m worried or scared about something, she always knows the right thing to say. I trust Molly completely. I trust her more than anyone. She’s always there for me. She’s always on my side. Like I said, Molly is cool.
Molly’s life at home has never been as easy to deal with as mine. Her parents are divorced. She lives with her mother and stepdad, Eddie Crawford. Eddie has never actually been mean to me when I’ve been over at Molly’s house, but he doesn’t go out of his way to be very nice either. I get the feeling he just tolerates me like an occasional annoyance to be ignored in the hope that it will go away–kind of like that mosquito you hear buzzing around in your bedroom just about the time you are drifting off to sleep. You don’t want to let it go because it will probably feast on your blood during the night, but you’re too sleepy to get up and launch a major hunting expedition to dispatch the critter. So, you just close your eyes and try to pretend it isn’t there.
I know it might sound stupid to think that Eddie thinks of me like that, but I believe he does. I think he considers Molly the same way. I never see him talk to her or even acknowledge her presence when she’s in the same room with him. I think he puts up with her as a part of the package that came with her mother. Molly doesn’t have any brothers or sisters. It’s just her, her mom, and Eddie. I feel kind of sorry for Molly when it comes to family stuff. I mean, my family has always been pretty cool. They at least talk to me, and my parents have managed to keep their marriage together. When I think about how it is at Molly’s house, it makes me appreciate what I have at my home. I know that sounds sappy, but it’s true.
There are a few other kids I hang around with. Some of them are in this story. I’ll tell you about them when we get to them. None of them are anywhere close to the kind of friend Molly is. They’re not bad kids. They’re just not Molly.
I have an older brother. His name is Andrew. He’s sixteen. I used to tease him by saying I was going to skip enough grades in school to pass him up. He didn’t like that very much. My left upper-arm was pretty bruised and sore for a few days the last time I brought it up. I got the message.
Andrew is a good student, but he has to work for his grades. It has never come as easily for him as it has for me. Looking back, I guess I shouldn’t have given him a hard time like that. Andrew will still be in high school next year when I will be a freshman. He’ll be a senior. It can be advantageous for a freshman to have a brother who is a senior–especially when you are an undersized pipsqueak like I will be when I get there two years too early. I need to work on keeping him interested in my well-being.
Mom and Dad are OK, I guess. They don’t have a lot to do with this story, but they are pretty nice considering they’re parents. They’re not mean. I know they love me. Mom can be overprotective. She treats me like I’m five half the time. Dad works too much. He’s not home a lot for dinner. His work keeps him late at the office more nights than not. He’s a good guy. He’s just too busy. That’s really all you need to know about them for now.
I like living in Bradenton. I don’t have anything to compare it to. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived, but I know I like it. I love to ride my bike and there’s no flatter place in the world than Bradenton. You can ride for hours and hours and never have to climb a hill. Wind and rain can be a problem. It rains a lot in the summer and wind in your face is no fun when you are riding a bike, but overall, it’s a paradise for a kid with a bike. The winters are mild. I can ride my bike pretty much any day of the year. It gets cold sometimes in January and February, but not for a lot of days in a row.
The only bad thing about winter is the invasion of the Snowbirds. Snowbirds are people (mostly retired) who live up north in the summer and down here in the winter. It can get super crowded at restaurants and stores when those folks pour in. Mom complains they make grocery shopping a nightmare. Dad always says we should be happy that they pay so many taxes while they are here that they keep us from having a state income tax. I don’t know about any of that. I just know that the lines at the Western Sizzlin’ are huge in the winter.
The other thing I like about living here is that there are people here from all over the place. I am a rare thing. I was born here. Most people who live here came from somewhere else. That means you get to meet a lot of people from a lot of different places. I think that’s cool. I already told you I don’t have a lot of close friends, but I talk to people easily. Mom says I’ve never met a stranger. I’ll talk to just about anyone. That can be a problem when you are a kid. It makes my mother worry a lot.
One person who is not from here is Molly. She was born in Scotland. It wasn’t long after she came along that her parents split up. She and her mother moved here when Molly was just a toddler, so she remembers nothing about living in Scotland, but she goes back there sometimes in the summer for a week or so to visit her grandparents. They’ve visited over here a few times as well. I love to talk to them. They have an accent that never fails to amuse me. I get a hoot out of them saying “house”. It comes out like “hoose”. Molly’s grandpa might say something like, “Eddie, you really have a nice hoose here.” Hysterical. Molly’s mother has a little bit of that accent also, but hers has kind of faded over the years she’s been living here. It’s not as pronounced.
I guess that kind of thing happens. You just blend in wherever you live. There was this kid named Ricky White I knew in second grade. He moved here from Tennessee. He had a thick southern accent when I first met him. A lot of kids poked fun at him for saying his last name. He didn’t say the vowel sound the way most of the people around here do. It sounded a little like he was saying, “what.” It wasn’t exactly like that, but sort of. After about a month or two, Ricky consciously adjusted his accent. I could tell it was an effort for him, but people stopped picking on him. It kind of bothered me. I never told Ricky about how I thought it was wrong to change something like that about yourself just because of some stupid bully. I should have. I put it off until it was too late. He moved away only about a year later. I’m not sure why. I think his dad got a different job or something. Anyway, I still think I should have had Ricky’s back about that whole thing. Even though Molly’s grandparents’ accent is amusing to me, I never joke about it. If I visited Scotland, people there might think I pronounce “house” funny, just like I think Molly’s granddad does.
Speaking of houses, I guess I should tell you about the old Muldoon place. You will want to know about that house if you are going to read the rest of this story. It’s about a mile or so from where Molly and I live. No one has lived there for as long as I can remember. I think it’s been abandoned for longer than I’ve been alive. The yard is all overgrown and the fence running around the front is broken down completely. The only actual part of what was once a fence that’s left is a big old stone archway right in the middle. I guess the fence once attached to it and I can only imagine that there used to be a gate of some kind in it. Now it’s just a grey, weather-beaten arch with overgrown stepping stones beyond it leading up to the door of the house.
The house itself is a mess. It’s not like the other houses in my neighborhood. Most of them are stucco and have a kind of Florida look to them. You know the kind–Spanish arches, barrel tiles on the roof–that type of stuff. The Muldoon house has siding on it. A lot of it has fallen off over the years and it’s lying around in what used to be mulch beds before the entire yard transformed itself into a giant weed farm. There’s no paint left on the house anywhere. It kind of has a grayish hue all over that adds to the overall creepiness of the place. In the back there is a dilapidated in-ground swimming pool with a big horizontal crack running along one side all the way from one end to the other. It fills up part way when the summer rains come. It gets pretty gross. The water is all green and filled with slimy algae all the time. Mosquitoes love it.
There apparently used to be a screened-in cover over the pool area, but that’s all broken down and lying in pieces in the backyard. In the back corner is a doghouse. It looks like someone made it to match the house. It has remnants of the same siding on it and the roof shingles match. Over the door of the doghouse is a wooden nameplate. It’s all worn and hard to make out, but I traced it by putting a piece of paper over it and rubbing it with a pencil. Once I did that, I figured out it said “Sandy” on it.
I’ve been to that house many times. Mom keeps telling me to stay away from it, but it’s just so tempting. Molly and I have foraged around that place dozens of times playing hide and seek and imagining we were archeologists digging up lost civilizations.
To Mom’s credit, it probably is dangerous. It’s a one-story house so there are no stairs to fall down, but there are plenty of other ways to get hurt there. The floor is on a concrete slab so there’s no fear of falling through it, but the roof is sagging, and it would be bad to fall into that old pool. Besides, the whole property looks like a perfect hangout for snakes of every kind imaginable. I definitely do not like snakes. Molly is always teasing me whenever we go to the Muldoon house by pretending to see snakes about every five minutes while we are there. She thinks that’s hilarious–never gets tired of it. Sheesh.
I know I should have obeyed Mom and stayed away from that place, but if we hadn’t kept going there, I wouldn’t have this story to tell. It’s a doozy. I told you that you would not believe it when you read it. I probably wouldn’t believe it either if a stranger just walked up and told it to me. Believe it or not, here it is.