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Orson Scott Card

  Also by Orson Scott Card

  Lost and Found

  A Town Divided by Christmas

  Zanna’s Gift

  Copyright © 2021 by Orson Scott Card

  E-book published in 2021 by Blackstone Publishing

  Cover design by Luis Alejandro Cruz Castillo

  All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

  Trade e-book ISBN 978-1-7999-0319-2

  Library e-book ISBN 978-1-7999-0318-5

  Young Adult Fiction / Fantasy / General

  CIP data for this book is available from the Library of Congress

  Blackstone Publishing

  31 Mistletoe Rd.

  Ashland, OR 97520

  To John Hammer,

  Writer and fair-minded newsman

  And to Elaine Hammer,

  Watchful editor and Muse:

  Thanks for giving me

  a dozen years of

  free speech.

  It never was a tame Rhino.


  Father had been gone for six months. He missed Labor Day. Which was no surprise, because he also missed the start of school and summer and the Fourth of July and Flag Day and Memorial Day and pretty much every family tradition or important family day, including Ryan’s and Dianne’s birthdays, not to mention Mom’s birthday and their anniversary, which, apparently, didn’t matter anymore.

  Ryan wasn’t really angry about it. Mother refused to say anything openly to him and Dianne, but Ryan was almost sixteen and definitely not stupid, so he gathered from her surly hinting that Mom believed Dad had another family he cared about more, and he wasn’t coming back.

  Of course, Dianne was being a complete butt about everything. The only thing she said about it was after Mom let slip about the other family, and Dianne quietly said to him, as soon as they were alone together, “You don’t actually believe that, do you?”

  Well, in fact Ryan did believe it, because why shouldn’t he? His own mother said it. Or hinted at it. But at age fourteen, Dianne always thought she was so smart, she could see through anyone, you couldn’t fool her.

  But on the twenty-third of September, when Ryan got out of bed late because there was a teacher workday and school was canceled, Mom and Dianne were gone—no note, because, like, who could possibly imagine that Ryan would care to know why he was alone in the house?

  Only Ryan wasn’t alone in the house.

  There was hammering. That’s what must have wakened him.

  He pulled on shorts and a T-shirt and padded barefoot down the stairs only to find that at the base of the stairs there was a new stud wall blocking the path from the dining room into the living room. And instead of the front door and vestibule leading into the whole house, there were two new doors framed in, so that when the wall was finished with drywall and the doors were installed, any visitor would have to choose, left or right, whether they were entering the kitchen side of the house or the library side.

  Of course, the “library” was actually Dad’s office, but the walls were lined with shelves filled with so many books on so many subjects that whenever he was supposed to do library research on something for school, Dad would say, “Well, before we drive all the way down to the library, why don’t we see whether we already own a book on that subject?” And they always did.

  Ryan walked through the framed-in door, into the vestibule, and then through the other door, into the library side of the house.

  The living room was stacked with boxes, and a quick glance showed Ryan that they were all full of books. Enough books that Dad’s office was probably empty.

  Not only empty. Dad was in there ripping out the built-in shelf units with a crowbar. It made a squealing sound—nails and screws getting ripped out of wood—and the work was almost done. The library was demolished.

  More than anything else, this convinced Ryan that Dad had really moved out. He couldn’t live in a place that didn’t have his books. The question was whether Ryan could live in such a place.

  Dad stopped his demolition work when he saw Ryan.

  “I bet you’re wondering,” said Dad.

  No need to go further. Old family joke. Walk in on something weird or scary, and you say, “I bet you’re wondering.” Ryan couldn’t remember if that came from some old movie or a book Dad read to them, or maybe it was just something somebody said once and the joke stuck.

  Only this time it wasn’t funny.

  Dad paused only a moment before realizing that Ryan wasn’t going to laugh or even smile.

  “Ryan, this is the only place where I can put a kitchen and downstairs half bath. I’ve got a plumber coming in later in the day to start laying pipe.”

  “We have a kitchen,” said Ryan.

  “That side of the house has a kitchen,” said Dad. “But your mother and I decided that we weren’t going to sell the house in order to split the equity. You kids are going to keep living here so you can stay in your schools.”

  “Didn’t you say that Vasco da Gama High was fecal beyond belief?”

  “I’m sure I didn’t say that,” said Father.

  “Fecal,” said Ryan. “That is the elevated word you used, though you intended me to understand it in a cruder way.”

  “I suppose it made my statement memorable.”

  “No, it was the accuracy of your statement that made it memorable. And three months into my junior year, I’m happy to report that da Gama High still enjoys a place of special prominence on the defecatory list.”

  “‘Special prominence,’ Ryan?” said Dad. “Really?”

  “It’s how I talk, Dad. Because, like it or not, I’m your son, so I talk like you.”

  “In order for you to stay in this house, we have to be able to keep up the payments. Since I also have to pay rent on my new place, we’re falling behind on pretty much everything. So we’re cutting this monstrosity of a house into a duplex and renting out this side. They’re going to want a kitchen—most people do—and a downstairs half bath.”

  “Which means no bath, just sink and crapper,” said Ryan.

  “Exactly,” said Dad.

  “Or you could move back in,” said Ryan. “Tear down that stupid stud wall and put up new shelves. No new plumbing.”

  Dad looked down at the crowbar in his hands. “I waited six months hoping that such a thing might happen,” he said. “But payments keep coming due.”

  Ryan wanted to call him on the lie—Mother already said that Dad absolutely refused to consider moving back home—but instead he turned around and left the room. Left that side of the house.

  While the plumber crawled under the house and then came back out and put blue chalk marks all over the library floor, Dad put up plasterboard on both sides of the stud wall and taped and spackled it. Then he mounted a couple of Home Depot doors into the frames he had made, shimmed them level, and then put lock sets and dead bolts on both doors, so the two sides of the house were sealed off from each other. He also installed new lock sets on the back doors—the old one off the kitchen, and the new one leading out of what used to be the library, to a four-foot drop down to the side yard.

  “Watch out for that first step,” Dad said when Ryan opened the door.

  “It’s a doozy,” Ryan muttered. Another old joke. Only this time true, and really not funny at all.

his’ll all be finished before Columbus Day.”

  “That’s good,” said Ryan. “In our half-house, we can have half a Thanksgiving and half a Christmas.”

  “It’ll be a whole Christmas.”

  “In the dining room.”

  “In the great room.”

  “How does a dining room become a great room without adding a square inch to the floor plan?” asked Ryan.

  “Because ‘great room’ is what real estate people call a combination living room, dining room, family room these days.”

  “This other side is bigger than our side,” said Ryan.

  “By about two hundred square feet total,” said Dad. “But your mom said she wasn’t going to have you and Dianne moved out of your rooms. And your rooms are on that side of the house.”

  “Mom’s room isn’t,” said Ryan.

  Dad shrugged. “She didn’t say anything about that.”

  “Where’s she supposed to sleep?”

  “Son,” said Dad, “I don’t make any decisions on that side of the house.”

  “Who’s going to be sleeping in your and Mom’s old room?” asked Ryan.

  “It’s going to be divided into two rooms,” said Dad, “and the tenants on this side can make their own decisions.”

  “They get the master bath?” asked Ryan.

  “Yes,” said Dad. “And you three will share the other bathroom.”

  “So we’ve got to fit Mom into our bathroom?” asked Ryan. “Have you seen how much crap Mom has in the bathroom?”

  “Yes, Ryan,” said Dad. “Every day for the past ten years that we’ve lived here.”

  “Except the last six months,” said Ryan.

  “Has the amount of your mom’s stuff decreased during that time?”

  “Expanded to fill the available space,” said Ryan.

  “Unsurprising,” said Dad.

  “New lock sets mean that my house key won’t work anymore.”

  “Oh, right.” Dad walked to the new back door, pulled two sets of keys from his pocket, and tested one key on the dead bolt. It worked, pushing the tongue out and pulling it back in. He handed Ryan a key from the other set. “Go test it and make sure it works on your front door.”

  “So I won’t have a key to this side?”

  Dad looked at him with his are-you-really-asking-that look. “I think the new tenants will be less than pleased if the neighbor children have keys to their house.”

  “Who gets the money the new tenants will pay as rent?” asked Ryan.

  “The bank,” said Dad. “I’m hoping we can get enough in rent to keep up the house payments.”

  “Are we behind?” asked Ryan.

  “We are not,” said Dad. “But when our savings run out in January, then we’ll fall behind unless we have tenants.”

  “Mom says you’re just cheap,” said Ryan.

  “Then it must be true,” said Dad, turning his back on Ryan. “Go test the key in the lock.”

  “You already tested them all,” said Ryan. “I saw you. I don’t think anything has changed.”

  “Test it by locking it, with you on the other side,” said Dad.

  “So you’re kicking me out?”

  “I’m going to continue doing my work, which includes putting up more walls here and upstairs.”

  “You going to finish it all tonight?”

  “I can only work certain hours of the day,” said Dad.

  “When Mom isn’t home,” said Ryan.

  “Take this key and give it to your mother. And give this one to Dianne.”

  “Dianne thinks that Mom’s lying and this is all her fault,” said Ryan.

  “I’m not responsible for what either of you kids believes or doesn’t believe,” said Dad. “I’m just responsible for making the house payment.”

  “Why don’t you just move in here?” asked Ryan.

  “We need a tenant to bring in outside money to make the house payment.”

  “If you moved out of your apartment,” said Ryan, “you could use your rent money to make up the house payment.”

  “Since you don’t know anything about anything at this moment,” said Dad, “your calculations are bound to be off.”

  “If you told me more,” said Ryan, “I’d know more.”

  “Sounds like your mother has already explained things.”

  “Is Dianne right? Is she lying to us?”

  “That would depend on what your mother said,” Dad replied.

  “She doesn’t say anything,” said Ryan. “She just hints and clucks her tongue and shakes her head and cries a lot.”

  “Sounds like your mother,” said Dad.

  “Defend yourself,” said Ryan.

  “I made my choices,” said Dad, “and I’m not going to go whining about the consequences down the road.”

  “I don’t want to hate you,” said Ryan.

  “Then don’t,” said Dad.

  “Too late,” said Ryan.

  “Then there’s nothing for me to say, is there,” said Dad.

  “Without a key to this side, how can I get in to see you?” asked Ryan.

  “I won’t be here long. I’m paying professionals to do all the finish work.”

  And that was it. Ryan went out the front door of the library side and then went through the door into the kitchen side and locked it behind himself.

  He set Mom’s and Dianne’s keys on the dining-room table, then picked them up and took them into the kitchen and set them on the study table. Which would certainly become the eating table, too, because the dining-room table would have to go if they were going to have living-room furniture in there.

  Ryan walked from the front of the house to the back and locked the back door, then went up the stairs to the bedroom floor of the house. There was no stud wall blocking off half the hall, so he walked the breadth of the house, from his and Dianne’s rooms into Mom and Dad’s room. He looked in the bathrooms.

  There was no stairway up to this floor from the library side of the house. Dad would have to build stairs. And that meant he would have to come up through their side of the house to cut a hole for the new stairway to enter. Where would he put it? Had to connect it to the hall, so it would probably run exactly parallel to the existing stairway, except with the wall between them. Right here.

  The linen closet would have to go in order to make a place for the stairs to come up. Another thing they’d have to find space for: all the towels and sheets. Plus Mom and all her stuff. Mom had a lot of stuff.

  Ryan could feel his own closet space slipping away. Mom would take his room because Dianne was Becoming A Young Woman Now, so she would need her privacy. Ryan would end up sleeping on the couch downstairs, using the half bath down there, dipping a washcloth into the toilet bowl to give himself sponge baths, for all that anybody cared. Ryan knew that he was going to be the main loser in all of this.

  Not Dad, that was for sure, since he had his other family. And the books would go home with him, and Ryan would have to start going to the downtown library.


  “So your dad not only left, but he took half the house with him.”

  Ryan could hear a note of sarcasm in Defense Fabron’s words, but also sympathy. He wasn’t really ridiculing anybody in particular. More like his standard posture of holding the universe to account for its many stupidities.

  “He locked us out of that half, but he left it where it was,” said Ryan.

  “Except it’s no longer inside your house, so . . . gone. Taken away.”

  “And I now get the distinct impression that everyone’s lying to me,” said Ryan.

  “Because everybody is lying to you, and they always have, and it’s shameful that it has taken you all the way to age almost-sixteen, as a junior in high school, to recognize the fact.”


  “Especially your teachers. And all the girls.”

  “Girls don’t even talk to me. How could they lie?”

  “They’re all dying to talk to you, so when they ignore you, they’re lying.”

  “I see that you, also lying to me, are trying to set me up to humiliate myself yet again with some nubile young creature with blue-and-orange hair.”

  “That would be a cheerleader, and you’d have nothing to say and nothing to hear from any of them, so no, I’m not lying to you. I just haven’t yet identified any of the girls who are dying to talk to you.”

  “You said they’re all dying—”

  “Everybody’s dying, Little King.”

  “But not everybody’s house just got cut in half. Not everybody’s mother just took over their bedroom and put them downstairs on the couch that’s in plain view from the room where everybody eats breakfast.”

  “You’re going to have to stop sleeping in the nude, Ryan.”

  “Think again, Monsieur Blacksmith le Defenseur.” As usual, he pronounced it in his best French accent. “The nakeder I am, the less likely either my mom or my sister will strip the blanket off me to make me get out of bed.”

  “The more likely.”

  “Again, think. I have no body shame issues. Let them study every part of me. While I continue to recline upon the couch.”

  “They’ll call your dad to come and get you up.”

  Ryan had no answer for that.

  “You won’t like being naked when he shows up,” added Defense.

  “Who are you defending, me or the women who rule my life now?”

  “I’m helping you see the future and forestall the most nauseating possibilities.”

  “I’ll see you at lunch, Nostradamus,” said Ryan.

  “Not if I can figure out how to split the lunchroom in half,” said Defense.

  “Someday I’ll find the ass that’s missing its hole ever since you got loose,” said Ryan.

  “Easy to find. Look for somebody really bloated yet unfailingly kind.”