Family Skulls: Read the first chapter for free
My novel Family Skulls, set in my native Vermont, follows Seth Quitman, a 16-year-old whose family has been cursed so that no one will ever help them with anything, big or small. Seth, like me, is not a person who’s willing to leave well enough alone, and also like me, he gets into some very difficult situations sometimes because of it. Here’s how his story begins.
The cover art is an original painting for the book by Dixon Leavitt.
Seth didn’t notice at first that everyone else was gone, because he was studying the equipment they used to keep the glassblowing furnaces hot. When he did notice, the possibility of missing the bus back—and the thought of what that would mean for him, because of the curse—hit his stomach like a little sack of lead. He ran up the stairs to the exit: high school kids milled around a lot. Maybe the bus was still there.
He burst out the door to see the bus just turning out of the parking lot. If he’d been a normal kid, from a normal family, he could have run after it and yelled, and the bus driver would stop if he heard. But there were a lot of things normal people could do that Seth couldn’t.
The bus drove away in a cloud of dust, and anger made something change in Seth. It was sixty miles back home to Caledonia, and now Seth would probably have to walk. It would still be light for six hours, but dark gray clouds were piling up in the west, threatening rain.
Seth had put up with the curse his whole life, just like the rest of his family: they could never get help from anyone, with anything. Not even little courtesies, like opening a bus door when you were late for your ride. Not even bringing you inside if you were unconscious and freezing to death on the ice.
Seth ground one foot into the gravel, thinking about Jerry Larsh, his family’s curse-keeper. There were worse things he could do to Seth: make him crazy like his Uncle Guy, or let him die like his great-great-aunt, or who knew what else? The Larshes were an old New England dowser family, and finding water was just the start of what they could do. What was obvious was that it was as stupid as stupid could be to risk making them angry. And it was just as obvious that Seth couldn’t go on living the way he had been.
Seth put those thoughts aside for a minute and tried to figure out his options. A normal kid from a normal family could have called his parents and had them come get him, or walked the five miles into White River Junction and convinced the Vermont Transit driver to let him ride the bus for an IOU, or even found a gas station near the interstate and tried to talk someone into giving him a ride. In the worst case scenario, a normal kid could have stayed put until his parents got worried and came to find him. Not Seth.
Maybe he could find a restaurant that would let him wash dishes for a few hours so he’d have money for a bus ride home, although by then the last bus would probably have left White River.
If he had to walk, Seth would probably wouldn’t get home until the wee hours of the morning and might have to miss school the next day, but at least his parents would understand. Things like this always happened to Seth Quitman and his family. His parents worried, but they couldn’t do anything about it, because it was impossible to offer help to a Quitman—even if you happened to be a Quitman yourself.
“Oh no, please no!” said a girl’s voice. “Did the bus already leave?”
Seth looked up. The speaker was a girl from his school, Chloe Moore or Chloe Murray, some name like that. She was in 10th grade like Seth, but they didn’t really know each other. Seth pretty much kept to himself. The curse made friendships hard.
Chloe had bright eyes and brown-black hair chopped to chin level. At school she always seemed to be wearing something three sizes too big; right now it was overalls. It looked as though she could hide a large basket of fruit in the pockets and you wouldn’t even notice.
Seth nodded. “Yeah, we just missed it. Are you going to call your parents?”
“I guess I have to, but they’re not going to like it. Are your parents coming to pick you up?”
“They’re not home yet,” Seth lied. He had to lie all the time; explaining wasn’t much of an option. “I’ll try calling them again in an hour or so.”
“Oh,” said Chloe. “Well, good luck.” She left to look for a pay phone.
Seth didn’t hold it against her that she hadn’t offered him a ride with her. At least she had asked if he had one; that was as close as anyone ever came to helping.
So the question was, how could Seth help himself? He’d grown up his whole life asking that question, and a lot of the time it came down to trading: if he offered something in exchange for what he wanted, it was a trade and not help. He didn’t have any money, of course: even though he tried to keep an emergency fund on hand, so many situations like this came up that he usually ran out pretty soon, and money wasn’t easy to come by for a Quitman. What else did he have?
He stuck his hands in his empty pockets. Not much, was what he had. He sat down on the cement steps in front of the gift shop and thought about it.
A few minutes later, Chloe came out and sat down next to Seth. She looked spooked.
“They coming?” said Seth.
“Yeah, of course. But my mom was really angry. I probably should have just walked home.”
“Not really, though,” said Seth.
Chloe laughed. “No, you’re right. Not really.”
What did Seth have to offer? He couldn’t wait and try to offer something to Chloe’s mom; he wouldn’t have enough time to make the pitch. But he had some time to think of something now. What did Chloe need? He glanced over to try to size her up better and saw that she was looking right at him. He looked away quickly. He stared at the road for an awkward minute.
“Gum?” Chloe said.
“No thanks,” Seth said. He’d never liked gum. People couldn’t offer him things he wanted or needed—only things he had no use for. Otherwise it would be help.
They both stared into the gravel for a while. Chloe took a math book out of a book bag and flipped through it, making irritated noises. “I’m going to be screwed on my math test tomorrow,” she muttered.
There it was. “You have a math test? Who, Mr. Brickman?”
“Mrs. Chea. Algebra.”
Seth had taken algebra in 8th grade. “I did pretty well in algebra. I want to be an engineer, build bridges and things, so I have to know it. You want some help?”
Chloe looked up appraisingly. “Yeah?”
“I guess I don’t have a lot of time to do it tonight, though. I have to go to a church thing.” That was another lie; Seth’s family didn’t go to church. But he’d cultivated that one, because people always believed it. Who would lie about church?
“Maybe you could ride with us. I mean, my mom would take you, if you were just helping me with math, and we could kill time on the way home going over this stuff.”
“I guess,” Seth said. “Yeah, that’d be OK.” Which meant he’d better start making good on the promise right away so she didn’t have time to change her mind. “So what’s on the test?”
Chloe blew out an aggravated sigh and flicked hair out of her eyes. “Quabratic equations.”
“Quadratic,” Seth said before he could stop himself.
“Ugh, I don’t even have the name right! Do you see what I mean?”
“It’s not as hard as it looks. You just go in steps, and you memorize what the steps are going to be, and then you can do it. And you check it at the end, so you’ll know for sure if it’s right or not. You have any paper?”
“No. We could ask the gift shop if we could have some.”
Seth nodded. “But I think you’d better be the one to ask.”
They were still bent over Chloe’s math book more than an hour later, when an old white Volvo pulled into the lot.
“There’s my mom,” Chloe said in a suddenly strained tone of voice. “Don’t say anything. I’ll tell her.” She stood and walked to the car. A slim woman with graying hair got out, her eyes fixed on Seth. She wore a royal blue dress that other than the color looked almost like a nurse’s uniform.
Chloe spoke immediately. “Mom, this kid got stranded too. He’s teaching me how to do my math. Can he ride with us?”
The woman’s gaze shifted to Chloe and shook her head, barely perceptibly. “Your father will be furious with you. Get in the car.”
Chloe’s voice got a little higher in pitch. She didn’t sound anything like she had when she’d been talking to Seth. “Mrs. Chea is giving us a test tomorrow, mom. If I don’t get these quabratic equations figured out, I’m going to fail it. You know how dad feels about tests.”
“Quadratic,” Seth said automatically.
“See?” said Chloe.
Chloe’s mom glanced from her daughter to Seth and back. Chloe seemed genuinely worried that without help she’d fail the test. Judging from the last hour, she was probably right.
“Who is he?” said Chloe’s mom, not moving.
“I’m sorry: I should have introduced you,” said Chloe, suddenly formal. Seth wondered what her home was like, if she acted so strange around her parents. “Mom, this is Seth …”
“Quitman,” said Seth. Chloe’s mom’s eyes widened slightly, then narrowed in a way Seth didn’t like.
“Seth,” Chloe went on blithely, “this is my mother, Mrs. Morgan.”
Morgan, that was it. Not Moore or Murray, but Morgan. “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Morgan,” Seth said. “I’d be very grateful for a ride. And Chloe’s starting to get the quadratics; I think we could finish up on the way back.” He felt like an idiot, talking that way. Next thing he knew, Mrs. Morgan would bring out tea and crumpets. Or from the look on her face, back over him with the car.
“Get in,” she told Chloe, including Seth with a glance. Chloe heaved a sigh of relief and ran around to the other side of the car. Seth went for the near back door, wondering as he went if walking home wouldn’t have been a better idea after all.
Twenty minutes into the ride, it began to rain. Chloe was getting tired of the math work, but at least she was keeping at it. She kept glancing up at Seth. He hoped she wasn’t thinking about anything other than math. He’d had a girlfriend before, twice. The first time it had only lasted four days; and the second time he made it almost to a week. The curse and girlfriends didn’t seem to mix very well. Seth was amazed his parents had ever managed to get together. And they probably wouldn’t have, except that his dad was so crazy about his mom.
By thirty minutes in, Chloe was finally beginning to understand the equations, and Mrs. Morgan had stopped shooting Seth so many accusing looks in the mirror.
Seth wrote out a more complicated problem for Chloe. “Let’s try one with—”
He was interrupted by a sound like a gunshot, and the car lurched. Mrs. Morgan wrenched the wheel and stomped on the brake, getting them back under control. The car made a gradually slowing sound like someone hitting a post with a wet towel: flapflapflap flap flap … flap … flap … flap …
“Do you have a spare?” Seth said.
“A spare?” Mrs. Morgan made it sound like she had never heard of such a thing.
“I’ll check it, Mom,” Chloe said. She jumped out and ran to the back of the car. “Pop the trunk!” she yelled.
Grimacing at the rain, Seth got out to help. Chloe was leaning into the trunk, pushing piles of cellophane-wrapped Christmas paper out of the way to get to the spare tire compartment. When she managed to pull the cover off the compartment, he was relieved to see that there was a tire there. He didn’t want to think about what he’d have to do if there hadn’t been one. He helped Chloe haul it out. They dropped it onto the pavement, where it sank into a lopsided shape..
“It’s completely flat,” Seth said. The rain felt heavier all of a sudden.
“It’s OK. I think we have Triple A. My mom will just call them on her cell phone and somebody will come and help.”
Not with me in the car, they won’t, Seth thought. It was true, too. It didn’t matter if Seth needed help alone or with other people; as long as he needed the help, nobody would come. They’d sit by the side of the interstate together until they rotted.
Seth got his backpack out of the car. “Well, I’m going to get going,” he said. “I think you’re in pretty good shape for the test, if you just slow yourself down and go through the steps.”
Chloe stared at him like Seth had just said he was going to fill his underwear with mud, of which there was getting to be more and more every minute. “You’re going to get going?”
“Yeah. Don’t worry, I have a different way back.”
“But you can just—”
“I have that church thing, remember? My uncle lives a few miles from here. He’ll give me a ride.” Another lie.
“But it’s raining.”
“Yeah,” Seth sighed, and he trotted down the embankment before he could change his mind.
“Hey, wait! No, come back!” Chloe shouted after him. He couldn’t tell if she was angry or just surprised. It didn’t matter, though: this was why he avoided friendships in the first place.
He jogged down a quiet back road as the rain thickened, and his thoughts turned back to Jerry Larsh, the current head of the Larsh household. It was Jerry Larsh’s fault he was out in this rain, Jerry Larsh’s fault that Seth couldn’t hope to go to college and become an engineer. After all, college meant recommendations and, for someone in Seth’s position, grants and loans. Recommendations, grants, and loans were help.
It had to end. How had three generations of his family lived through this without going crazy? It had to end. His whole family was scared of the Larshes because of what they could do, but Seth was done with being scared of them. He would do something about it. He’d spy on the Larshes and find out where they were vulnerable, and then he’d act. He’d make them stop. He didn’t care what else they could do, even if it was worse than the curse he already had on him.
Thinking these thoughts, he walked grimly on through the downpour.
Seth made it about to Bradford, in Orange County, before he gave up on walking. A farmhouse stood a little way back from the road. The empty driveway led to an open, detached garage. Inside the garage was an old bike, a three speed by the look of it, with a white wicker basket on the front. Just the thing a high schooler wants to be seen riding. Still, it was better than walking.
Seth checked to see that the coast was clear, then walked into the garage and grabbed the bike. A little rusty, but the tires were OK. That meant someone must ride it from time to time, so it would be missed, but that couldn’t be helped. Seth sighed and climbed on, rolling down the dirt driveway and onto the road. Maybe he shouldn’t go on field trips any more. This far from home, it was too hard to stay out of trouble.
The rain thinned out a bit as he pedaled on, which was good, because the road was slippery. After dinner he’d have to offer his father a bag of beans to drive the bike back down to where he’d got it, and hope he could put it back without being caught.
That’s they way they had to do it in Seth’s family: they kept little bags of kidney beans and offered them in exchange for favors from each other, although Seth couldn’t remember why they used kidney beans. “Give you a bag of beans if you’ll get that can down for me,” Seth’s mom would say to him.
It was almost as good as being able to ask for help like a normal person, but it had its limits. For one thing, you had to be able to hand the beans over right away, because none of them really cared a lot about getting bags of beans. The promise of getting some beans somewhere along the line just wasn’t strong enough an incentive to get around the curse. He had two bags in his backpack, but they wouldn’t have done him any good if he had tried to buy a ride home over the phone with them.
But it wasn’t Seth’s fault he couldn’t just call and ask for help: it was the Larshes’. And it was high time Seth did something about it.
Family Skulls is currently available for the Kindle at Amazon.com at a price of $2.99, and is also available through the Kindle Lending Library.