To Catch a MermaidSuzanne Selfors
Copyright © 2007 by Suzanne Selfors
Illustrations copyright © 2007 by Catia Chien
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Little, Brown and Company
Hachette Book Group
237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017
Visit our Web site at www.HachetteBookGroup.com
First eBook Edition: January 2009
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Chapter One: Friday the Thirteenth
Chapter Two: A Viking Breakfast
Chapter Three: Winger
Chapter Four: The Principal’s Office
Chapter Five: The Reject Seafood Bucket
Chapter Six: Fish for Dinner
Chapter Seven: The Thing on the Bed
Chapter Eight: The Goldfish Acrifice
Chapter Nine: Erik the Red
Chapter Ten: A Secret Revealed
Chapter Eleven: Ms. Kibble
Chapter Twelve: Jay the Miracle Fish
Chapter Thirteen: Daisy Mump
Chapter Fourteen: Mertyle’s Wishes
Chapter Fifteen: The Cedar Chip Sea
Chapter Sixteen: Mermaid Magic
Chapter Seventeen: The Strange Drawing
Chapter Eighteen: Ick
Chapter Nineteen: The Captain’s Story
Chapter Twenty: Dr. Buncle
Chapter Twenty-one: Stair Surfing
Chapter Twenty-two: Unwanted Guests
Chapter Twenty-three: Hurley Mump
Chapter Twenty-four: The Merfolk’s Curse
Chapter Twenty-fi ve: The Sons of the Vikings
Chapter Twenty-six: Fame and Fortune
Chapter Twenty-seven: Mr. Broom Emerges
Chapter Twenty-eight: Man Overboard
Chapter Twenty-nine: The Calm After the Storm
Chapter Thirty: Thor’s Wind
Chapter Thirty-one: Whale Fin Island
Chapter Thirty-two: The Merfolk’s Song
I feel very fortunate to have two excellent critique groups. Thanks to Carol Cassella, Dennis O’Reilly, Jonathan Evison, Anjali Banerjee, Sheila Rabe, Elsa Watson, and Susan Wiggs for reading the first draft. Thanks also to my hardworking agents, Kate McKean and Michael Bourret, and to my editor Jennifer Hunt and her assistant, T. S. Ferguson, and the staff at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Much appreciation to author Michael Collins, for always lending a sympathetic ear.
On the home front there’s my mother, Marilyn, who deserves a big thank-you for being overwhelmingly supportive and downright fabulous. My father never got the chance to read this story, but I channeled his spirit when I created the character of Halvor. And I couldn’t ask for a more enthusiastic audience than my children, Walker and Isabelle, and my niece, Maxine.
Finally, immeasurable gratitude to my husband, Bob, who could have said, “Are you nuts?” when I told him that, at age 39, I was going to start writing. But instead he said “Go for it.” So I did.
“Sometimes a fish isn’t exactly a fish”
—A very observant person with a magnifying glass
Friday the Thirteenth
Boom Broom awoke to find his little sister, Mertyle, looking for spots.
“It’s a good day for spots,” she announced, examining her knobby knees with a magnifying glass. While Boom rubbed sleep from his eyes and stumbled out of bed, his sister made up another ridiculous excuse for not going to school.
Last week she had suffered from orange tongue, thanks to an ancient Popsicle found at the bottom of the freezer. The week before, she had come down with ringing of the ears. “Could somebody answer that phone?” she had repeated whenever anyone walked into the room. Since the beginning of the school year, Mertyle had faked over sixty ailments including the common cold, yellow fever, weakness of the eyebrow, and nostril fungus. She had even claimed brain farts.
“Brain farts? That’s just a saying for when you’ve done something stupid. No one’s brain actually farts,” Boom had pointed out.
“Well, mine just did,” Mertyle had insisted, muffling her head with a pillow. “It’s embarrassing and I don’t want to go to school and have it happen in front of the entire fourth grade.”
Boom knew the real reason Mertyle didn’t want to go to school, and it had nothing to do with gaseous explosions of the brain. Mertyle didn’t want to go to school because school lay beyond the front porch. The grocery store lay beyond the front porch, as did the public swimming pool and the ice cream shop, and she didn’t want to go to any of those places either.
Mertyle had refused to step off the front porch for almost a year, ever since that terrible twister had touched down in the Brooms’ front yard. The only person in the front yard at the time had been Mrs. Broom, tending her pink roses. The twister had sucked her away, like a vacuum cleaner grabbing a clump of cat fur. Boom and Mertyle had been at school, and when they’d come home, all that had remained of the twister was a big circle of dirt burned into the ground.
A tornado had never visited Fairweather Island before, though storms were common. The kind of storms that roll off the ocean, push over trees, and send waves and driftwood crashing onto the rocky beaches. From a bird’s-eye view, Fairweather looked like two lumpy dollops of dough plopped down in the middle of nowhere. The larger dollop, where Fairweather’s quaint harbor and colorful town lay, was attached to the smaller dollop by a narrow land bridge — too narrow for a road and too treacherous for a casual walk. Thus, the upper portion of the island remained wild and undeveloped.
That a twister had touched down just outside the Brooms’ front door was difficult enough to understand. But the fact that Mrs. Broom, a very nice person indeed, could have simply vanished was beyond understanding, especially for Mertyle. The only thing found in the big circle of dirt was the magnifying glass that Mrs. Broom had always kept in her back pocket. The very next day, with her mother’s magnifying glass in hand, Mertyle had refused to leave the house and had begun to fake being sick. She was determined not to miss the moment when her mother miraculously returned.
Mertyle wasn’t the only Broom family member who refused to leave the house. After his wife’s sudden disappearance, Mr. Broom stopped painting seascapes, which was how he had barely made a living. He announced that the twister would return, then he locked himself in his attic studio and asked for weather updates through the keyhole. Except for his dashes to the bathroom, or an occasional appearance in the kitchen to obtain something to eat, he had rarely been seen since. The world beyond the front porch had proven itself to be unpredictably dangerous, and Mr. Broom had decided to avoid it entirely.
In movies, twisters carry people to the Land of Oz and kill wicked witches. In real life, they inflict misery.
But Boom Broom wasn’t like his little sister or his father. His mother’s death didn’t make him want to hide from the world. He wanted to kick the world — kick it good and hard and as often as possible.
A foghorn sounded in the distance. Ice crystals twinkled at the corners of the single-pane window. Boom shivered, tightening his bathrobe, and stared at the wall calendar that hung on his side of the room. One unfortunate outcome of living in the smallest house on Fairweather Island was that Boom and
Mertyle had to share a bedroom — the only bedroom, in fact. Their tiny house consisted of a kitchen, living room, and closet on the first floor, a bedroom and bathroom on the second floor, and an attic on the third floor. Not much room for a family of three. And sharing a bedroom was the worst aspect. Why? Not because Mertyle snored or smelled bad in the morning, but because her side was aglow with coordinated pink curtains, pink pillows, and a pink comforter. She had painted a picture of a pink house surrounded by rainbow flowers and had tacked it to her wall. Her goldfish even swam around a pink castle. Boom, who had no interest in coordinating anything, especially anything pink, claimed his side of the room with piles of laundry, tousled blankets, and strewn books. But despite his attempts at camouflage, the first color he always saw when he awoke was pink, and that was no way to start a day.
He traced his finger across the calendar. Today was Friday, March thirteenth. He had circled the date in red — not because Friday the thirteenth was supposed to be unlucky but because it was the day Boom had been waiting for since the school year had begun. Today was the final game in the Kick the Ball Against the Wall Tournament. This would be Boom’s last tournament because in three months he would graduate from sixth grade and move on to a new school. He was determined to leave Fairweather Elementary as a champion, glorified in lunchroom lore and playground stories as the best kicker ever. Boom smiled as excitement zapped his kicking foot.
“Yes, I’m definitely going to do spots today,” Mertyle decided. She reached beneath her bed and pulled out the plastic bin that contained her tools of fraud. A black marker sat at the top of the bin, alongside a spritzer of water for mimicking sweat and a jar of fermented mayonnaise that smelled like vomit.
Marker in hand, Mertyle drew a few penny-sized spots on the tops of her feet while Boom searched for his slippers. He kicked through a pile of dirty clothes. Today is the day! Mertyle added some spots to her arms. Today, today, today. Boom kicked his way across his side of the bedroom, sending Ping-Pong, soccer, and basketballs flying.
“Did you take my slippers?” he asked.
“Your slippers are under your geometry book,” Mertyle said confidently. She added some spikes to a spot, turning it into a sunflower.
“Where’s my geometry book?”
Mertyle, with a smug grin, pointed to behind the door. Sure enough, there lay the book with the slippers beneath.
“The only reason you know where everything is, is because I’m too busy to know where everything is,” Boom told her. He spoke the truth. While he struggled with compound fractions and South American geography at school, Mertyle hung out in bed, eating Ry-Krisp and watching game shows. While he endured day after day of teasing because his shoes had holes, or because his pants were too short, Mertyle hid behind the walls of their small house, pretending to be sick, and examining things with their mother’s magnifying glass. While he survived, Mertyle waited pathetically for a miracle to happen.
Boom couldn’t stand the thought of staying inside all day. Sure, he felt sad too. Sadness had almost burnt a hole right through his stomach. He missed his mother as much as Mertyle did. Sure, he hated twisters too, but Boom had vowed that he would never pretend to be sick or shut himself away in the attic. He would never let the big dirt circle get the best of him!
Boom Broom had plans, and they involved the world beyond the front porch. Today, Friday, March thirteenth, was Boom’s day.
A Viking Breakfast
Breakfast!” Halvor yelled from downstairs.
Halvor served breakfast in the Broom household at 7:10 each morning. Boom bumped on his bottom down the steep staircase that led to the first floor — an uncomfortable yet efficient way to travel. The usual odors floated from the kitchen — Halvor’s thick coffee that constantly percolated on the back burner of the potbelly stove, toasted rye bread, dark and crunchy and smothered in marmalade, and frying fish fillets. Never, ever, did Halvor make a normal breakfast. Boom longed for the cereal that was shaped like stars and drizzled with white frosting. Or the kind with tiny marshmallows that floated and turned the milk pale green. Halvor didn’t cook bacon or eggs or pancakes or oatmeal, like the rest of the world. Every morning he made fish and rye toast and coffee.
“Sit down,” Halvor barked as Boom entered. “Your fish is getting cold.”
Halvor was the family cook, hired right after Mrs. Broom’s disappearance. Mr. Broom had popped his head out of the attic to interview and hire Halvor. There wasn’t enough money to pay a salary, so in exchange for cooking the children’s meals, Halvor got a room in the garage, rent-free.
He was an old man, though Boom didn’t know how old. About grandfather age. He had a big belly that sometimes didn’t stay inside his shirt. He looked pregnant, but Boom knew that was impossible for males unless one were a sea horse. Halvor had a bald head, a bushy beard, hair growing out of his nose, and a slight Norwegian accent. “Where’s Mertyle?” he asked.
“Here I am,” Mertyle announced, glancing at the kitchen clock. “Sorry I’m late.”
“You can bet that Erik the Red was never late for breakfast,” Halvor said, adjusting his horned Viking helmet. He wore the helmet while cooking, to protect his scalp from flying grease. “Unless he was pillaging, for sure.” Halvor mentioned Erik the Red at least ten times a day. He was a proud direct descendant of the dreaded Viking warrior and he belonged to a club called the Sons of the Vikings. They held meetings every Friday night.
“What’s wrong with you this morning?” Halvor asked Mertyle as he slid a golden fillet onto her plate. Boom picked at his fish fillet, pushing the tiny white bones aside. He was so tired of picking through bones. Waffles don’t have bones. Waffles don’t have skin, either.
“I’ve got spots,” Mertyle announced, lifting her pajama legs.
“Yah, I see. Spots. Okay, eat your fish.”
Halvor was no dummy, but he never said to Mertyle, I know you are faking these spots or I know you really don’t have nostril fungus. He just patted her on the head and let her stay home. Mr. Broom didn’t seem to care either.
“Poor little Mertyle,” he’d say through the attic keyhole. “You certainly can’t go to school if you’ve got an ingrown toe hair. Stay inside, where it’s safe. Stay away from the wind. That twister will be back, mark my words.”
“Why don’t you make her go to school?” Boom complained to Halvor that morning. He pulled two white feathers from his hair, escapees from his goose-down quilt. Boom rarely brushed his hair, and thus, bits of stuff could often be found in it. His hair grew straight up, like brown grass. “She’s gonna flunk fourth grade.”
“She’s sick,” Halvor replied, putting two more slices of bread into the toaster. “She doesn’t feel well.” No one ever asked Boom if he felt well. No one ever asked how things were going at school, or if he needed any help with that huge report on nest-building techniques of red-throated sparrows. His mother would have asked. She would have helped him when he had tried to build a sample nest out of sawdust and spit.
“Mertyle’s nuts,” Boom muttered.
Halvor dipped a piece of raw fish into some batter and tossed it into the frying pan. “Are you a doctor?” he asked Boom.
“Well, no,” Boom replied, scraping chunks of marmalade off his toast. “But I can tell when someone’s nuts.” Boom had concluded that everyone in his family, except him, was nuts. He had even written a paper about it, but the teacher had given him a C minus with the comment, in red ink, that it wasn’t nice to call other people crazy.
“You should keep your nose out of other people’s business,” Halvor advised, wiping his hands on his checkered apron. “If someone had told Erik the Red he was nuts, he would have hacked off that person’s head, for sure.”
Mertyle glared at Boom, angered by his disloyalty, but he believed he had only spoken the truth. It did absolutely no good to sit around the house and wait for someone to return who was never coming back. Besides, schoolwork had always been easy for M
ertyle. She had never struggled with reading the way Boom had. She had the kind of brain that could get a scholarship for college, but no college would accept her if she flunked the fourth grade! Or if her brain turned to Jell-O from watching game shows all day long.
The coffee percolator whistled and gurgled as Halvor sharpened his fish-gutting knife against a special stone. Boom ate his meal as best he could, deboning and scraping and picking until he managed to find a few edible morsels. He needed energy for the tournament. He had made it to the final round because he was the best kicker at Fairweather Elementary.
Mertyle examined some toast crumbs with the magnifying glass. She carried it everywhere. Before being sucked away, Mrs. Broom had worked as a fingerprint expert, so the glass was an extra powerful lens. “Each crumb is like its own world,” Mertyle observed. “This one has a Grand Canyon, and this one has mountains.” She saw things through that glass that no one else could see. “This crumb has an entire aqueduct system.”
Yep. Completely crazy.
Boom loosened his bathrobe and wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead. While the rest of the house was ice-cold because there was no money for heat, the kitchen was balmy, thanks to the busy potbelly stove.
“You know, Halvor, on Jeopardy! last night . . .”
Boom groaned. Mertyle’s know-it-all voice was more grating than most know-it-all voices.
“. . . they had a category about Vikings.”
“Oh?” Halvor smiled proudly.
“Vikings didn’t actually wear horned helmets.”
Halvor’s face fell. “Of course they did.” He adjusted his helmet. “Everyone knows that, for sure.”
“No, they didn’t,” she insisted, moving her magnifying glass over a pile of fish bones. “It’s a myth. And the Jeopardy! people should know because they have a whole building full of researchers.”
Halvor folded his arms. He didn’t like it when anyone questioned his Viking knowledge. In fact, it made his lower lip tremble. He pointed to the counter where two books on Viking lore lay. “I read. I know. Those game show people don’t know because they aren’t direct Viking descendants. How else would Erik the Red protect his head from hot fish grease?” Before Mertyle could make a counterpoint, Halvor stuck a finger in the air. “That reminds me, we are almost out of fish.”