The Strangest Stories

. . . After placing the mugs of hot chocolate on the table, Webb’s mom stood there, hands on her hips like a gunslinger about to draw. A gunslinger in a colorful nurse’s smock, scrubs, and comfortable shoes.

“You gonna tell him or do I have to?” she asked, swatting at the back of Webb’s head without ever making contact.

In the eleven months Xero had known him, Webb Sanders had never once blamed those every-now-and-then mischievous moments on uncontrollable curiosity or on an insatiable need to push back. Not the time he got caught at Byrd’s Grocery Store changing out every-other boring can of beef barley soup stacked at the end of the aisle like a pyramid for a bright orangy can of apricots because the display needed a little color. Not the time he “borrowed” eighteen books from the Baxter Free Library by dropping them out the bathroom window, or the time he swapped two identical mailboxes (except for the numbers, that is) by moving them directly across the street from where they’d been.

He did, however, blame his DNA (not the Portuguese or the German or the Irish, not like that, but by claiming it was simply the result of having fire genes, the curse of being a ginger, of having that extra spark in the blood most people just didn’t have).

“You know how I’ve been saying,” Webb started, plucking a semi-melted mini-marshmallow from his mug and plopping it into his mouth, “you could just walk out behind your house and right through Mrs. Shankman’s back door any time you want and grab a slice of that blueberry buckle of hers and a nice cold glass of milk and you could sit at that old metal table she’s got, like she had us do those times last summer, and you could eat every delicious blue bite like you was in your own kitchen?”

Xero nodded, suddenly aching all over for blueberry buckle.

Leaning over his mug, Webb added, “Make sure she ain’t home first.” He lowered his lips into the drink and slurped.

“What happened?” asked Xero, shifting in his seat, imagining Webb tip-toe-creeping into Mrs. Shankman’s kitchen, all shadow boy, all silent, the way Webb could be when he tried, a wild-haired silhouette remaining perfectly still the way they do in cartoons sometimes with just the toes moving.

Lifting his mug with both hands, Webb simply shook his head, as if he didn’t have the words, then he took a big gulp of his drink. Sometimes he would jump into a story with both feet. Other times he’d whittle away a little here and there. It depended, really, on whether he wanted to sweep you up or tease you bit by bit.

“Nothing scarier,” he finally continued, lowering his mug, “than a wrinkly, half-naked, hundred-year-old lady throwing knives at your head.”

Webb might be a natural born storyteller, Xero envied him for that, but he sure did exaggerate sometimes. For one thing, he and Xero both knew Mrs. Shankman was only about eighty-five. Of course, they also knew she’d grown up in a circus family, traveling all over the world doing tricks with knives (the special blindfold trick she did with her dad was how she had been extraordinary, famous even, before she became infamous, that is).

Not long after they moved to Baxter, Webb’s mom had found an old newspaper article online which she’d shown the boys. There’d been a black and white (meaning mostly gray) photo of Mrs. Shankman from back when she was ten-years-old. Blindfolded on a unicycle, she had three throwing knives in her left hand and one in her right and there was this man in the photo, too, standing a dozen feet away from her in front of this huge bull’s-eye that had two knife handles sticking out of it (one near the man’s left knee and the other close to his right ear).

According to the article, the man was Mrs. Shankman’s dad. The article was titled “Big Top Tragedy” because of how Baby Jane (Mrs. Shankman’s stage name as a girl), had never missed her target. Not one time ever. Before that day.

According to the article, her dad didn’t make it.

“You know she sleepwalks,” Xero reminded Webb. They had made that discovery for themselves one day the previous summer when they found Mrs. Shankman perched on her back porch roof in a sequined red and blue polka-dot bikini top and white pajama bottoms. They wouldn’t have noticed her at all if Xero hadn’t ended up flat on his back while chasing Webb around the barn. “You never wake a sleepwalker.”

“When an old lady shuffles into her kitchen and catches you sitting on her countertop like you do at home when you’re mom ain’t there,” said Webb, his mom hmphing in response, “and she catches you sneaking a second piece of buckle and your mouth’s all blueberry stuffed so none of your words come out like words,” Xero loved watching Webb tell his adventure stories because he always acted them out with his arms flying and his eyes getting wild and wide just the way he was doing now, “and she starts flinging knives into them cabinets all around you, thump-thump-thump, you don’t stop and say, oh, she’s just sleepwalking.” Webb spooned a melted marshmallow into his mouth. “What you do is you scream, on account of how you think you’re gonna die.”

Xero imagined that small forest of curly orange hair standing straight up on Webb’s head.

“You don’t think,” asked Webb’s mom, “if she wanted you dead, she’d be sticking those blades into you instead of into her cabinets?”

“No. You just jump from that counter and you chuck your plate at her,” Webb held up both hands to stop either of them from saying anything. “Out of defense,” he said. “You chuck it out of defense and you scream some more because you can’t think of what else to do. You know, like running out the way you came in through the back door. Your feet ain’t even your feet no more. Your head’s saying, RUN! RUN! RUN! But your feet are saying, Hell no! We ain’t moving. Look at the trouble you already got us into. And they stay put.” He shook his head again, leaned into his cup, and slurped. “All you got left is the screaming.”

Which, according to Webb, is enough to snap an old wrinkly sleepwalker in a sparkly polka-dot bikini top and white pajama pants right up out of her sleepwalk.

“Like that,” added Webb, snapping his fingers.

Of course, it turns out, when the old lady has a weak heart and she wakes all of a sudden and finds someone in her kitchen who shouldn’t be there, it’s enough to give her a heart-attack.

“She fell down like a sack of bones right there on that tile floor,” said Webb’s mom, shaking her head.

“Is she–” Xero couldn’t get the word dead out of his mouth. It just felt wrong. Mrs. Shankman was one of the people he and Webb had picked to live way into triple digits.

“Thought she was,” said Webb, looking deep down behind Xero’s eyes, like he did whenever he was about to share a secret. “And I was glad, too.”

Webb’s mom gasped. “Webb Sanders,” she said, placing her right hand over her heart like she was doing the pledge or something. “I thought I raised you better–”

“Least she stopped throwing them knives,” Webb explained. “Only, then it was like I swallowed bricks. There was this heavy thing in here.” He touched his stomach. “Not from the buckle, but from her seeming dead and all.” Webb shrugged. “Called 911 and the guy on the other end had me make sure she was still breathing. Told him I wasn’t getting nowhere near her. Only he said I had to.”

“He’s a hero,” said Webb’s mom with a bright smile. “My boy’s a hero.” The smile fell from her face. “A dumbass, buckle-thieving, fool of a hero.”

“I creeped up on her and all her wrinkly skin,” Webb scrunched his face, “like she was a sleepy old alligator. I just kept waiting for her to take my hand.” He snapped his arms together in front of Xero’s nose like alligator jaws and Xero jumped back in his seat. “But she didn’t, on account of how she wasn’t playing and was almost dead and all.”

Webb told Xero how he put his fingers on the side of Mrs. Shankman’s neck and how, at first, he didn’t feel anything except her cold leathery skin. The 911 man told him how to push on her chest and breathe into her old mouth and Webb said he nearly ran out then, but he did what the man told him to do and when he put his fingers back and held them there he felt the littlest quiver under his touch.

“Then the ambulance came and took her away,” Webb added. “That’s why you gotta make sure a person ain’t home if you’re gonna have some buckle.” Webb smiled, ducking just in case his mom decided to take another swipe.

“That police man saw the knives and called me,” said Webb’s mom turning her gaze from Xero to her son. “You best believe Webb heard it every which way from both of us how he shouldn’t have done what he did.”

“The cops showed up?” asked Xero.

“One super-sexy,” replied Webb, pointing at his own freckled head as he stood from the table and walked to the sink, “one half-dropped-dead old lady in a sparkly swimsuit, blades all over the place. Those ambulance guys couldn’t get Five-O there fast enough.”

“All they needed was her old unicycle and a damn elephant and you’d have had your face plastered all over the newspaper,” said Webb’s mom shaking her head. “Let that be a lesson to both you boys,” she pointed from Webb to Xero, “don’t go sticking your nose or your bottomless pit of a stomach or any other part of you where it’s not invited.”

Webb, who’d already heard enough lecturing from his mom, didn’t bother reminding her for the fifth time that back in August Mrs. Shankman had told both boys they were welcome any time. Mi casa, su casa, she’d said. So, technically, he had been invited. He finished the last of his drink and put his mug in the sink then encouraged Xero, who hadn’t even started his yet, to do the same.

“We’re going outside,” said Webb. His mom cocked her head, but before she got any words out, he added, “I mean, may we be excused?”

Xero threw his head back and downed his warm-but-no-longer-hot chocolate in three huge gulps, smacking his lips, trying to hold onto the flavor as long as he could.

“Thank you for the chocolaty goodness,” he said, moving his chair back.

“You’re welcome, baby,” she replied, then scowled at Webb. “You hear your friend thanking me?”

“Yeah,” mumbled Webb, opening the door to leave, giving Xero the stink eye, “I hear him.”

(excerpted from the MG novel Xero Treu:
The Extraordinary Tales of an Extra Ordinary Boy