I didn’t mean to burn down our garden shed. But now I’m glad I did. If I hadn’t, none of this would have happened. The island. The gold. It was all because of burning down that shed.
The first day of vacation I was sitting in there playing with a box of matches. Striking one. Watching it burn. Blowing it out. Throwing the dead stick on the floor and reaching for another.
I was bored.
You’re not allowed to say that word in our house.
Only boring people get bored, says Dad. Interesting people can always find something to be interested in.
You can’t be bored, says Mom. There’s so much to do here! Why don’t you play a game? Or call a friend? Or go for a bike ride?
But I didn’t feel like doing any of that stuff. So I hid in the shed and played with matches.
Suddenly I smelled smoke. I looked around. Flames were blazing up the walls. One of the matches must have still been burning when I dropped it on the floor. I sprang at the door, wrenched it open, and threw myself outside.
As I rolled across the grass, my clothes smoking, I saw my mom standing at the French windows, her mouth open in a silent scream. Then she ran to get her phone.
By the time the fire engines arrived, the shed had burned itself out. They drenched it anyway, making sure no sparks blew into any of the neighbors’ houses. The chief fireman gave me a long lecture about fire safety. So did Mom. And Dad. They were still discussing how to punish me when the phone rang. It was Mrs. Spencer, calling to say that she was very sorry, but they really couldn’t have me to stay. What if I burned down their shed too? Or even their house?
"It was an accident," said Dad. "He’ll never do anything like it again."
But Mrs. Spencer wouldn’t listen.
Dad sat at the kitchen table with his head in his hands. "I don’t believe it," he groaned. "We’ll have to take him with us."
"We can’t," said Mom.
"Then what are we going to do?"
"Someone will have him."
"Oh, yes?" asked Dad. "Who?"
My parents were having their first vacation together without children since my big sister, Grace, was born. My kid brother, Jack, was staying with his friend Bongo. Grace was staying with her friend Ruby. I would have been staying with Finn Spencer, but his parents wouldn’t have me now. After the shed incident, neither would anyone else.
"I don’t mind staying here," I told my parents.
"No chance," said Dad.
I had another suggestion. "I could share Gran’s room at the Home. I like playing chess with her friend Isaac. And the food’s not bad."
But Mom vetoed that, too. "If no one will have you, we’ll just have to cancel the vacation."
That was when Dad panicked. He called everyone he knew.
Everyone he could think of.
Even his brother.
Which was how I came to be sitting in the back of the family wagon at half past five on that Tuesday morning, whizzing down the interstate toward New York City.
Apparently I’d met Uncle Harvey a few times at weddings and funerals, but he’d never been to visit us in Norwich and I couldn’t even remember what he looked like. Just like Dad, he was British but lived in the States, although in his case I didn’t know why. Dad came here because he met Mom and married her and she wanted to be near her own parents when Grace was born. Uncle Harvey wasn’t married and had no kids. I guess he just preferred New York to London, which makes sense; it’s cold and damp over there and the food’s terrible.
The drive took hours. By the time we finally made it to Uncle Harvey’s street, Dad was flipping out. "We’re going to miss the plane," he said, breathless with panic. "I knew we should have left earlier."
"We’re going to be fine," said Mom calmly. "Look, we’re here already. That’s number nineteen."
Dad double parked, grabbed my bag from the trunk, and scanned the street for traffic cops, then raced up the steps and rang the bell. Mom and I followed right behind him. We stood on the top step, looking at the paint peeling off the front door and the trash bags stacked against a lamppost, spilling tin cans and orange peels. Two women jogged past. A man came out of another brownstone wearing a blue suit and carrying a racing bike. He put the bike in the road and swung himself onto the seat.
Dad rang the bell again. "Where the hell is he?"
"Simon!" said Mom.
"Sorry," said Dad. "But where is he?"
"Asleep," I mumbled. "If he has any sense."
"He can’t be asleep. He knows we’re coming." But Dad took out his phone and called Uncle Harvey. There was a long pause. Then: "Hello? Harvey? Where are you? We’re outside! Didn’t you hear the bell? It doesn’t matter. Forget it. Could you let us in?"
Six minutes later (Dad timed it), the front door was opened by an unshaven man wearing a long silk bathrobe decorated with yellow butterflies. "Simon! Sarah! How lovely to see you!"
I could see the relief on my parents’ faces. When Uncle Harvey hadn’t answered the door, they really thought they’d have to take me to Nassau. Their vacation would have been ruined. Now they could hand me over and get away for a whole week of sunbathing, reading books by the pool, and smoochy candlelit dinners.
"Here’s Tom," said Mom, pushing me forward. "He’s very excited about staying so near Greenwich Village. Aren’t you?"
"Hi," I said.
Uncle Harvey said hi back and shook my hand. He was taller than my dad, and thinner, too, and he looked much younger, although I knew the actual age difference was only two years and five months.
Mom said, "Are you sure you don’t mind doing this?"
"I’m looking forward to it," said Uncle Harvey. He had a mischievous smile. "We’re going to have a wild time together."
"Not too wild," said Dad. "Tom’s been in enough trouble recently."
"That sounds interesting. What type of trouble? What have you done?"
"Oh, nothing much," I said. "Everyone just likes to get annoyed with me all the time."
"I know exactly what you mean," said Uncle Harvey.
I knew he didn’t. He was just saying so to be nice. But I still appreciated it.
Dad gave me a quick, awkward hug. "Bye, Tom. Be good."
"Bye, Dad. Have a great vacation."
Mom kissed me. Then she stepped back and looked at me nervously. "I hope we’re doing the right thing. You will behave yourself, won’t you?"
"Of course he will," said Uncle Harvey. "Now stop worrying. I hereby give you permission to enjoy yourselves. Get thee to the airport and have a glass of wine."
They didn’t argue. Just rushed down the steps and ran along the street to their car, not wanting to give my uncle the chance to change his mind.