Jack sat in the backseat of a rental car, his sketch book open on his knees, drawing pictures of bells. His mother hadn't spoken to him in the last four hours, not that it mattered. What was there to say, really? He'd already argued and cried and reasoned, but the result was the same: His parents, after years of fighting, were finally calling it quits. Jack was to spend an entire summer in Iowa with relatives he did not know. He couldn't believe it.
Jack watched the passing farmland as it rippled and swelled like a green ocean stretching from the pavement to the sky. A darkened smudge appeared at the very end of the long, straight road. Jack squinted, trying to get a better look. There was something familiar about that, he thought, as the smudge slowly grew into the shape of a hill, though for the life of him he couldn't remember where - or whether - he'd ever seen it.
Jack closed his sketchbook with a firm slap and bound it tightly with a rubber band before slipping it into his duffel bag. He let his hand linger in the bag for a moment to run his fingers along the sandpapery surface of the skateboard hiding at the bottom. If his mother knew, he'd never be allowed to keep it. Still, as it was a gift from his older brother - and an unexpected one at that - it was the only thing that had even a remote possibility of mak- ing his time in Iowa bearable, and Jack wasn't going to give it up. Not without a fight anyway. He zipped up the bag and looked outside.
"Is that where we're going?" he asked, pointing to the hill ahead, but his mother was on her cell phone with her boss, and didn't hear him. Jack decided not to mind. Nothing new there, he thought. His mother often didn't notice him. Or hear him. Or even see him half the time. Same with his father. Not that he blamed either of them. They were, after all, very busy. His mother ran the communications department for the mayor of San Francisco, and his father was an architect - a famous architect, Jack liked to tell people, though no one ever listened or cared. Most of the time, Jack was very proud of his parents.
It wasn't so bad being invisible. Sometimes invisibility had its uses, though Jack couldn't help but feel that since the announcement of the divorce, he was growing more invisible than usual. Or that the world around him had shifted just enough that he didn't quite belong to it anymore. He worried he might disappear from their thoughts altogether. And though these worries troubled him, he tried to shrug them off. Why worry about what you can't fix? Besides, the car was slowing down, and he didn't really need an answer anyway.
The town rose up behind a tangle of gnarled trees on a gentle hump of land - the only hill for miles, as far as Jack could tell. A wooden sign stood at the side of the road, leaning slightly to the left. Welcome to Hazelwood, it said in large black letters, though the paint was faded and chipped in places, exposing the graying wood underneath like tiny bites.
"Hello?" Jack's mother raised her voice at the phone. "Hello? You've gone out on me, sir."
"No service around here, Mom?" Jack said.
"There's no service around here," his mother repeated, waving her phone as if she could catch signals like butterflies. She acted as though Jack hadn't spoken.
"Isn't that what I just -"
"And always in the middle of something important." She clicked off the phone and sighed. "Typical."
It was clear that his mother wasn't in the mood to chat, so Jack turned toward the window, examining the signal-free town.
The town was clean and quiet. Completely quiet. No cars moved, no buses groaned, no people jostled one another on the street. There weren't even any barking dogs. Instead, a quiet block of perfectly mowed yards, where each green square of lawn fitted snugly against the one next to it, with a thin border of geraniums or gravel in between. Neat white house followed neat white house with porches and weeded gardens and sometimes a swing set. Although Jack usually liked things neat and orderly and predictable, the sameness in the town unnerved him. It was as if each house wanted desperately to be pink or orange or electric green but couldn't.
Excerpted from The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill. Copyright © 2011 by Kelly Barnhill. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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