Chapter I Today
Just how much of a creepy old hermit man is he, again?" my sister, Emma, asked as Mom drove us up the hill to my grandfather’s ranch house.
It wasn’t a ranch-style
house, but a house that sat on a five-thousand-acre ranch with cattle and everything.
The building itself was a three-story 1890s Texas Victorian mansion built into the side of a hill. It had a cupola, a raised wraparound porch with outside ceiling fans, and burgundy and purple trim around the windows and eaves.
"Because this doesn’t look that bad," Emma went on, glancing at us in the back seat. "What do you think, guys?"
My brother, Kyle—Emma’s twin—just grunted.
"Max?" Mom prompted.
"It’s, um, freshly painted," I said, which, okay, wasn’t much better than Kyle’s grunt, but still.
"It’s exactly as I remember it," Mom said as she brought the Tahoe to a halt.
Kyle grunted again. It had been two weeks, and he still hadn’t forgiven Mom for springing the news on us that she’d been offered a position (and a fast-track grant and visa) to go to some remote corner of Mongolia on a dig for feathered dinosaurs that were supposed to be even more spectacular than the ones from Liaoning Province, China. It was very last minute, but the paleontological institute over there had asked for Mom—Dr. Ernestine Pierson-Takahashi—"by name," she’d said. It was apparently an enormous compliment, a terrific opportunity, and one of those things you couldn’t say no to.
With our dad having died five years ago in Afghanistan and my uncle (Mom’s brother) working in London, that left my grandfather as the only one who could realistically have taken us in. And so, in an act of extreme desperation, Mom had asked her father if he’d do it, and, to her enormous surprise, he’d said yes.
The thing was, despite the fact that the ranch was only thirty minutes from where we lived in west Austin, Mom had seen Grandpa only once in nearly fifteen years, and the three of us had met him only on that same occasion, at Dad’s funeral.
Supposedly, Grandpa just decided one day that he’d had enough of people and family, and people like family, and since then had left the ranch just that one time. The only humans he talked to were his ranch foreman and the lady who cooked and cleaned for him.
From what I understood, this sort of thing wasn’t completely unusual in our family: the guy who’d built the house—my grandfather’s grandfather—was nicknamed "Mad Jack" Pierson because he’d spent most of his fortune to build what he’d claimed was a time machine, which he called the "Chronal Engine."
Not surprisingly, he’d died a recluse.
So Kyle, Emma, and I weren’t exactly thrilled to be trapped all summer in the middle of nowhere on a ranch with a complete stranger. Probably I was most looking forward to it, because I was the only one of the three of us who’d picked up what Mom called the family "dinosaur gene." She had it, she’d said, from having grown up here. (This isn’t how genetics works, of course, but sometimes my mother is ironic.)
Anyway, the ranch was home to the famous Loblolly Dinosaur Tracks, sets of fossilized Late Cretaceous footprints attributed to Tyrannosaurus rex
, among others, in one of the Colorado River tributary creeks that ran on the ranch.
I’d never seen the tracks, of course, and neither had an entire generation of paleontologists—my grandfather had caused something of an uproar when he’d stopped allowing them onto the ranch, too. My mother was still hearing about this from unhappy colleagues and the occasional frustrated PhD candidate.
As we got out of the car in front of the house, though, it was hard not to be impressed. The mansion was situated on a hill above the Colorado River and had an incredible view. We could see for miles in every direction: the river snaking its way, eventually, to the Gulf; the pines and live oaks; the hills of McKinney Roughs rising in the distance; and the gathering rain clouds.
"Little Buddy Creek is down that way." Mom gestured vaguely toward the woods off to the left, where the dinosaur tracks were.
As Kyle and I pulled our suitcases out of the back of the Tahoe, the front door of the house opened and a seventy-ish man, leaning heavily on a black lacquered cane, strode across the porch to stand at the top of the steps. He was tall—taller than I’d expected—had bushy white hair, and was wearing boots, jeans, and a red, long-sleeved Western shirt.
He paused, peering down the flight of stairs.
"Hold on a second, kids," Mom said, then ran up to greet him. She and her father hugged for a long moment.
After they talked for a while, she gestured for us to come up.
Up close, I thought our grandfather looked more like the twins than me. He had Emma’s dark eyes and good posture, but Kyle’s straight nose and unruly hair.
He gave each of us a long, appraising look.
"High school?" he asked the twins.
"Freshman year," Emma answered. "In the fall."
"You’re the one who plays football?" he asked Kyle.
My brother nodded. "Hoping to make varsity this year."
It was one of the reasons Kyle was so angry about having to come here. He and his friend Jordan had had great plans for "off-season conditioning" this summer, which, so far as I could tell, involved a lot of running and the repetitive lifting of metal plates. Mom had told him that Uncle Nate’s old weight set was probably gathering dust in the basement here, but Kyle was still mad.
Personally, I didn’t think the two of them had much of a chance at varsity, anyway, but I wasn’t going to say that aloud.
"And you’re the flutist?" Grandpa asked Emma.
"And the swimmer and the lifeguard trainee and the math geek and the hospice volunteer and the sister," Emma said with a bright smile that had kind of an edge to it. "I’m a lot of things."
Everything she’d said was true, and she did them all well, which was occasionally irritating, especially when people asked me what I did.
When they bothered to, anyway.
"Dinosaurs?" they’d repeat, and give me kind of a funny look.
"And you’re Max?" Grandpa said to me.
He stared at me for a moment. "Eighth grade?"
I nodded again. "In the fall."
He just squinted at me, but had no more questions. "Y’all can have the run of the place," he said finally, "so long as y’all don’t stampede the cattle and don’t bother me none, either."
"See? It’s not so bad," said Emma, who is almost always optimistic but not annoying about it.
After Mom had left (with that pinched look and the line between her eyebrows), the three of us had been introduced to Mrs. Castillo, Grandpa’s assistant/nurse/cook.
Then we moved our things into our respective rooms on the second floor. Kyle and I were in rooms with a connecting door, and Emma was across the hall.
Once I’d dumped my clothes into the dresser drawers and plugged my laptop in to charge, I headed downstairs to the parlor to look around. (I knew it would take Emma and Kyle a lot longer to unpack because they believed in hanging up and folding their clothes.)
Like all the rooms in the house, the parlor was centered around a fireplace. This one was built of some green tile and was topped with a black granite man...