"I gotta be honest, Lex," Uncle Mort said as they continued down the hill into town, slowing the bike so they could speak without yelling. "You look just about ready to soil yourself."
Lex shot him a glare, then eyed a sign at the side of the road that read Croak! Population: 78. The number clicked over to 80 as they passed.
She scrunched up her nose. "That was weird."
Lex gazed at the handful of small buildings as they passed by. "I don’t get it. Where’s the town?" she asked, searching into the distance.
"You’re in it."
"This is it?"
"It is small," Uncle Mort agreed. "But it’s got heart."
Lex assumed he meant this literally as well as figuratively, since both sides of the street were lined with blooms of brilliantly red bleeding-heart flowers. As she gawked at the short buildings, she got the eeriest feeling that she had stumbled into a historical theme park. The storefronts just seemed so old-fashioned, like they were part of some bygone era of yore, or maybe even yesteryear. She had only ever seen places like this on the evening news during election years, when politicians invaded to kiss babies and purchase homemade pies from smiling, toothless bakery owners.
"Please tell me you have running water," she said.
"Of course. Tuesdays and Thursdays."
She couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic.
"Don’t worry," he said. "Croak’s a pretty modern place. Up there are the Pine Condos, where some of the younger people live, and a few good shops on the right down Slain Lane." He pointed to a side street paved with cobblestones, unlike the smooth pavement of the one they were on. Lex craned her neck and spotted a handful of oddly named stores: a flower shop called Pushing Daisies, a mattress place labeled The Big Sleep, and a grocery store with a giant sign reading Bought the Farm.
At the junction of the two roads, a gravestonelike obelisk rose out of a small fountain. Uncle Mort nodded to the left. "Best diner in the universe right there. Hello, Dora!" he called to the ancient woman sweeping the sidewalk outside. She waved cheerily.
"And the library’s up on the left—oh, but check this out, our pride and joy," he said with reverence, looking straight ahead. At a fork in the road stood the tallest building in town, clocking in at a whopping two stories. The Victorian house was painted a sunny yellow, with friendly letters spelling out the word Bank across the façade. The wooden front porch contained a hammock, a small table, and, naturally, a pitcher of lemonade. "We take our investments very seriously."
Lex struggled to take it all in. She had never seen a bank that looked as though it could double as a summer home. Nor could she conceive of a place that didn’t seem to have a single traffic light. And the quaint, nostalgic street sign labeled Dead End rather than Main Street only confirmed her suspicions that the town had surely lost its quaint, nostalgic marbles.
Then, just like that, it was behind them.
The bike veered onto the fork to the left of the Bank and passed a large field on the right. Across that, a dozen or so houses stretched down the other fork, looking like any other suburb in America.
Lex squirmed in her seat. "Are you kidding me? That was not a town," she said. "I mean, where’s the Starbucks?"
Uncle Mort sighed. "Lex, I know you’re from New York, so I’m going to forgive you for that. But let me tell you something right now, something that I don’t want you ever to forget: Starbucks is an abomination."
Lex was speechless, for she now believed there was no way in a million years this man could possibly be a blood relative.
"And here are my digs," he said as the bike slowed. "What do you think?"
Lex no longer knew what to think. The house was practically a larger version of Uncle Mort himself—loud, schizophrenic, and potentially fatal. Speckled with all manner of colors in no apparent pattern, it looked as if it had rolled around the countryside picking up random items and whatnots before finally coming to a halt at the top of its grassy hill.
Lex ogled the bizarre devices poking out of each window as the bike rolled to a stop. She took off her helmet and dropped it to the ground. "You really live here?" she asked, her voice tinged with the faintest trace of warmth. This house, in all its chaotic glory, reminded her of her bedroom back home.
Uncle Mort dismounted the bike. "Yep. And now, so do you." He handed her a set of keys. "Your room is the first door on the left."
Lex, who from the moment of her conception had never had a room of her own, snatched the keys out of his hand and tore into the house. If she really was going to be stuck here for the duration of the summer, she might as well become accustomed to the living quarters in which she would undoubtedly be holing herself up. And at least this was an actual house with actual walls and not a crusty, fetid hayloft, as she had feared. It almost seemed—she hardly dared to think it—kind of cool.
She burst into the front hallway. Unsurprisingly, the kitchen was a mess, and the living room was buried under piles of unidentifiable paraphernalia. Useless junk clogged each pore. Empty photograph frames collected dust at every turn, while a large tank of jellyfish stretched across an entire wall, like a live mural. The luggage Lex’s mother had sent sat at the edge of it all, blending in perfectly. Lex grinned, her sense of alienation abating. This was exactly the way she and Cordy had always preferred to live: in utter squalor and disarray.
Tingling with anticipation, Lex ran down the hall to her room and flung open the door.
Her face fell.
No bedlam. No eyesores. And not a single useless trinket.
Instead, a beautifully carved armoire stood gracefully in the corner. Next to it, a desk made from spotless white oak. Pink bedding, curtains, and rugs, as if a flamingo had exploded. And worst of all, looming on the wall across from the frilly, perfectly made bed: a Titanic movie poster.
Lex shrieked in horror and slammed the door. "What was that?"
"What’s wrong?" Uncle Mort asked as he entered the house. "You don’t like it?"
"I hate it! Were those doilies?!"
"Dammit." He sighed. "I thought I could trust him with this."
Lex glanced at the slightly open door across from hers, on which was tacked a poster of The Who. She peeked through the crack, but all she could see was a massive set of drums. Next to that, another door was wide open and spewing a heavy stream of smoke. She squinted down a set of stairs at several bubbling vials of goo.
"Your basement’s on fire."
"Oh, that’s just my lab," Uncle Mort calmly replied, closing the door and fanning the sulfuric fumes away. "I like to tinker."
"I see." Lex strayed back into the living room and looked around, confused. "Where’s the TV?"
"I don’t have one."
"WHAT?" she yelled. "WHAT?"
"After a few days you won’t even care. And don&...