“This is the most boring summer in the whole history of the world,” nine-year-old Oliver Vanderbeeker announced. He was wearing basketball shorts and a faded blue T-shirt, and his hair was sticking out in every direction.
“It’s only the first week of summer vacation,” Miss Josie, the Vanderbeekers’ second-floor neighbor, pointed out. The Vanderbeekers, who lived on the ground floor and first floor of a brownstone in Harlem, spent a lot of time on the second floor when their mother was busy baking for her clients. Miss Josie had her hair in curlers and was watering her many trays of seedlings, which covered the dining room table. When she was finished, she stepped over to a window box, clipped a few small purple flowers, and put them in a bud vase before handing it to Laney. “Bring these to Mr. Jeet, won’t you, dear?”
Laney, five and a quarter years old and the youngest of Oliver’s four sisters, stopped tying ribbons around the ears of her rabbit, Paganini, and stood up. She wore a silver skirt made of sparkly tulle, a purple T-shirt, and sparkly red shoes. The shoes were slippery on the bottom, so she shuffled slowly over to Mr. Jeet, careful not to spill the water in the vase. Paganini hopped close by her heels, shaking his head, causing his ears to flip around and the ribbons to launch in different directions.
“How are you bored already?” Mr. Beiderman asked. Mr. Beiderman was their third-floor neighbor and landlord, and up until half a year ago, he hadn’t left his apartment in six years. He had almost refused to renew their lease back in December. But the Vanderbeeker kids had managed to convince him to let them stay, and now they were working on getting him outside the brownstone. He visited the Vanderbeekers as well as Miss Josie and her husband, Mr. Jeet, almost daily, but he had never left the building once in all that time.
Oliver slumped into a sunshine-yellow vinyl chair at the kitchen table, his elbows on the metal tabletop, his hands propping up his head. “There’s nothing to do. Nothing I can do, anyways.”
Oliver watched Miss Josie pull a shoebox down from a high cupboard and lift the top off. Inside were a dozen pill bottles. One by one, she opened bottles and shook pills into a cup. “And what do you want to do?” she asked.
“Text my friends,” Oliver said immediately. “Watch basketball videos on YouTube. Play Minecraft.”
Mr. Beiderman flattened his mouth into a straight line. “Kids today,” he muttered, then went back to reading out loud to Mr. Jeet. The book was about the history of roses in England. Oliver noticed that Mr. Jeet’s eyes fluttered closed, probably because he was bored to death.
Jessie Vanderbeeker, who was a few months away from turning thirteen, was sitting on Miss Josie’s fire escape, reading a biography about the famous physicist Chien-Shiung Wu. She leaned her head through the kitchen window between a curtain of ivy tendrils trailing down from Mr. Beiderman’s planters above. Her frizzy hair caught onto some of the ivy, making her look electrocuted. “Oliver, seriously,” Jessie said. “You’re worse than Herman Huxley.”
“Herman Huxley!” Oliver spluttered. Being compared to Herman Huxley was like being compared to gum on the bottom of your shoe or jellyfish in a lake on a beautiful summer day when all you wanted to do was cannonball off the dock into the water. Herman Huxley complained about everything, including cold weather, hot weather, and his brand-new Nikes, which any other kid would sell their most prized possessions for.
“Yup,” Jessie said, whipping out her new-as-of-last-week phone and punching it with her thumbs.
Oliver felt a wave of pure green jealousy wash over him as Jessie flaunted her phone.
Jessie continued talking, her eyes never leaving the screen. “You know Mama and Papa got this for me so I can keep in touch with Isa.” She disappeared back behind the curtain of ivy.
Oliver glared in her direction. It wasn’t fair. Isa, yet another sister and Jessie’s twin, had been chosen for some special three-week-long orchestra camp four hours away by car, but that didn’t mean she and Jessie should have whatever they wanted.
Hyacinth, age seven and the sister who annoyed Oliver the least, spoke up from her perch on the armrest of Mr. Jeet’s chair, where she was working on a new type of knitting using only her fingers—no needles. By wrapping yarn around her fingers and doing some complicated looping, she created a rope of yarn that fell to the ground. “Tell Isa I love her and miss her a million, trillion times. And then put that unicorn emoji at the end, and lots of those pink hearts.” Next to her was Franz, her basset hound, who sneezed three times, then nudged Hyacinth’s foot with his nose.
“Ha!” said Oliver triumphantly. “She can’t even do emojis on that stupid flip phone.”
“Language,” reminded Miss Josie. She handed Oliver the cup of pills—there were, like, a hundred pills in there!—and a glass of water. “Bring these to Mr. Jeet, will you, dear?”
Oliver unglued himself from his chair and walked to Mr. Jeet. Mr. Jeet wore his customary crisp button-down shirt, a lavender bow tie, and ironed gray slacks. Oliver did not understand why Mr. Jeet voluntarily dressed up every day. He was a jeans-and-T-shirt guy himself; the dirtier the clothes, the better the mojo. After he put the pills on the little table by Mr. Jeet’s seat, next to a framed photo of the Jeets’ twelve-year-old grandnephew Orlando posing with a science-fair trophy, he dragged himself back to his chair and slumped into it.
“Why don’t you play basketball?” Miss Josie suggested.
“No one’s around,” he mumbled. “Everyone’s at camp. Basketball camp.”
“Angie isn’t at basketball camp,” Miss Josie said, referring to his next-door neighbor and friend, who was also the best basketball player in their elementary school.
“She’s going to summer school in the mornings. Something about an advanced math extra-credit course.” Oliver shuddered.
“I’m sure your mom would love it if you cleaned your room,” Miss Josie suggested.
“I cleaned it last month,” Oliver said.
“You could read.”
“Uncle Arthur forgot to bring books the last time he came to visit.”
Miss Josie tsked sympathetically. She knew how much Oliver depended on his monthly book delivery from his uncle, who provided him with every story a kid could wish for.
Mr. Beiderman ...