Wild was a word that could describe the weather on 141st Street on the first Monday of August. A hot wind rushed through the checkered streets of Harlem with such ferocity that trees bent in wide arches and pedestrians had to lean into the gusts at steep angles to keep from being blown off course. Rain pelted the sidewalks and pooled at street corners. At the top of the red brick brownstone in the middle of the street sat a weathervane that spun so fast it looked as if it might propel the building up into the air and disappear into the clouds.
Down in the basement, Oliver, age twelve and ready to head to the seventh grade next month, was getting ready for a three-day camping trip in the Adirondacks with his dad. Three years ago, when his twin sisters, Isa and Jessie, were in sixth grade, Papa had taken them on a three-day summer getaway trip. His sisters could choose anywhere within driving distance, and they asked to go to Washington, DC. Isa’s favorite violinist was performing at the Kennedy Center, and Jessie wanted to go to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, where the space shuttle Discovery was displayed. In the years since then, Oliver had been planning for his summer-after-sixth-grade trip with Papa. And what he wanted to do most was go camping.
Papa and Oliver had researched the best places to camp in the area, and after considering many options, they had decided on the Adirondacks. They had booked a campsite right by a gorgeous lake six months in advance. Oliver had been looking forward to the trip throughout the long, hot, boring summer. And now that the day of departure was finally here, he was in a great mood as he checked the contents of his backpack for the fiftieth time.
Outside, the clouds were low and dark, and wind caused rain to smack against the walls and windows of the brownstone. Upstairs, Mama was finishing up a batch of granola that Oliver and Papa would take with them, the musical clinking of metal bowls and wooden spoons a comforting sound that the Vanderbeeker kids had all been hearing since birth.
In the basement, Laney, who had turned seven that past spring, was observing Oliver while sharing a bowl of crisp red-leaf lettuce with her gray lop-eared rabbit, Paganini.
“This is great lettuce,” Laney said as she watched Paganini consume an enormous leaf. “Do you want to bring some on your camping trip?”
Oliver shook his head. “Yuck, no. We’re only going to eat junk food. S’mores. Beans right out of the can. Hot dogs.”
Franz, a basset hound with long ears that he sometimes stepped on when he sniffed for dropped morsels of food, observed the lettuce-eating with a focus he typically reserved for mealtimes.
“I don’t think you’re going to like lettuce, Franz,” nine-year-old Hyacinth said. She was sewing a plastic cover for Oliver’s backpack. He was going to need it with all that rain.
Laney held a piece of lettuce out, and Franz, elated that food was being handed to him, snatched it from her hand. Then he galloped up the stairs and out of sight.
“I hope he’s not hiding that in my bedroom,” Oliver commented, looking up from his backpack. “I don’t want to find slimy lettuce under my desk when I get back.”
A minute later, Franz reappeared and stood in front of Laney, staring at her until she gave him another piece. He disappeared up the stairs again.
“What a weirdo,” fifteen-year-old Jessie said.
“Yeah, what a weirdo,” Laney echoed.
Isa put down her violin. She’d been practicing a complicated line of music over and over again. “Great,” she said to Jessie. “Now Laney’s going to be saying that for the next year.”
“Weirdo, weirdo, weirdo,” Laney said. She liked how the word sounded.
Franz trotted back down the stairs. Laney held out another piece of lettuce to him. He grabbed it, then raced back up the stairs.
“Stop giving him lettuce,” Jessie told Laney. “He’s going to get sick.”
“From vegetables?” Laney asked, popping another piece of lettuce into her own mouth and handing a smaller piece to Paganini. “I doubt it.”
“Wild dogs don’t eat lettuce,” Jessie said. “They’re carnivores.”
“Franz isn’t wild,” Hyacinth said. “He could never survive in the wild.”
Franz came bounding back down the stairs, lettuce nowhere to be seen. His tongue hung from the side of his mouth, his tail was going at 100 wpm (or wags per minute), and he looked as if he was having the best day of his whole life.
“That dog,” Jessie said with a shake of her head. “He’s a perfect case study of what fourteen thousand years of domestication will do to you.”
The sound of Papa’s phone ringing upstairs interrupted their discussion about Franz’s heritage. The ringtone was the Star Wars theme song, which meant that the caller was Uncle Sylvester, Papa’s best friend. Uncle Sylvester and Papa had grown up next door to each other and had even gone to the same college. They both married their college girlfriends right after they graduated, only Papa returned home to Harlem, while Sylvester moved to his wife’s hometown in Indiana and became a farmer.
Because Sylvester lived in Elberfeld, a rural part of Indiana, Papa had gone to visit him only twice in the twenty years since college. Sylvester had come to Harlem twice, once to pack up his childhood home and move his parents to Elberfeld (this was before any of the Vanderbeeker kids were born), and once four years ago to visit with his wife, Amelia, and their daughter, Sabine, who was Hyacinth’s age. Laney had been a toddler, Hyacinth five years old, Oliver seven, and the twins in fifth grade. The Vanderbeekers immediately loved the family. Sylvester and Amelia had brought them dozens of fresh eggs and bags of vegetables from their farm. It was during their visit that Laney had discovered she hated carrots (and had declared that all orange foods were disgusting) but loved cucumbers, grape tomatoes, and eggplant.
“Uncle Sylvester is calling,” Oliver said at hearing Papa’s ringtone. Even though Sylvester wasn’t technically related to them, they called him “Uncle,” since he was like a brother to Papa. “Are you sure you’ll get everything done in time for Papa’s birthday? You know I can’t help for the next few days because of my camping trip.”
“We know about your camping trip,” Jessie said. “You’ve only mentioned it a million times. We’re