THE TWINS SAT ON THE EDGE OF ONE OF THE DOUBLE beds, backs ramrod straight, hands folded in their laps, although Efraim absentmindedly put his left thumb in his mouth from time to time. Television had been rationed in their old life, by their father's insistence, and the twins still treated it with a kind of nervous awe. They didn't laugh, or even smile much, just stared at the cartoon channel with unblinking attention. Perhaps they thought if they showed no sign of enjoying it, no one would think to take it away from them.
Isaac, too, had liked the unlimited cartoons at first, especially Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius. But now he was getting bored. He wished he had a book, a new one. His mother had allowed him to pack only one, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and he hadn't argued because he thought they were going away for a long weekend, not forever. He had finished it the first two days on the road, before they met Zeke. He could reread it, but the book made him sad. If you were going to run away from home, you should have an adventure, do something important and thrilling, like the brother and sister in the book. You shouldn't just drive from town to town, sitting in motel rooms that looked alike and watching the same television shows you could have watched back home. That is, if you were allowed to watch all the cartoons you wanted back home.
Teachers were always saying Isaac had a vivid imagination, but it certainly had never occurred to him that he might have a life without books. In his "before" life-his real life was how Isaac thought of it-his father never said no to anything involving a book. Whether it was buying one, staying up late to read one, or even trying to read what everyone else said was a grown-up book, Isaac's father always said it was okay. It would have been easier to imagine a world without food, or a house. Even if a person was very poor, there were always libraries. But you couldn't have a library card when you drove to a new town almost every night, because how would you take the books back on time?
Isaac would like to ask his mother if they were poor now, but not in Zeke's hearing. Because if they had lost all their money, that would be a private thing. His father wouldn't want other people to know about it. His father was very proud. But it would explain a lot, if they were poor. It might even explain why they had left. In the story of Hansel and Gretel, the father and the stepmother took the children to the forest because they didn't have enough to eat. Maybe his mother had been planning to let them go in the forest, then decided she couldn't do it. Or maybe that was Zeke's plan, although he wasn't a stepparent. He was mean enough to be a stepparent.
Certainly Isaac's mother and Zeke talked about money all the time, about the cost of everything, in a way his father never had. "Down by thirty-seven dollars," Zeke might say, after paying for breakfast. "Up by three hundred dollars," he had announced yesterday as he helped Isaac out of the trunk last time. Down was bad, no matter how small, up was good.
But it was never good enough, judging by Zeke's face, which always looked as if he were adding and subtracting.
They had started out with a thick envelope of money, but his mother had given much of it to the big, hairy man who gave her the car, the papers, and the shoe box. Isaac's mother had cried, accusing the man of taking too much of her money. The man had said the car was cheap, but the things she needed to drive the car came a little dearer. Isaac remembered the exact phrase, for it was new to him. Came a little dearer. His mom had handed over the money and gotten the crummy green car in return. She should have been willing to walk away. That was important in making a deal, his father had told him. You always had to be ready to walk away.
That had been in the mountains, the Appalachians-he had learned about them in geography. His mother's friend, the woman with the fuzzy hair and the sad eyes, had driven them to a farm. On the way his mother kept talking about what a great weekend they were going to have, picking fresh fruit at orchards, maybe swimming. The signs promised a lake-Deep Creek-and cabins. They had gone west, west, west, past Frederick and Hagerstown, past Cumberland. They may have even left Maryland before they were done. Isaac wasn't sure. He was thinking about the lake and wondering if his father would teach him how to fish. Did Jews fish? They weren't allowed to hunt, he knew that, not the Orthodox. But fishing was different for some reason, maybe because fish were kosher and bears were not.
But when they got to the old farm, his mother's friend had unloaded their bags and taken off, hugging Isaac's mother and wishing her well. His mother had put them in the new car-well, the old car that was new to them-and driven them to a motel, one with a pool. That had been the last motel with a pool, at least a working one. The next day they had been in the car forever, driving into the night, passing motel after motel, only to pick one that looked like all the others.
The next morning his mother had put Isaac in charge and left for an hour. When she came back, she was with a man who had the palest face that Isaac had ever seen. "Meet your Uncle Zeke." Even then Isaac had thought his father would be joining them soon. It was only later, when his mother told him to stop asking, that he understood they weren't going home.
Tonight his mother and Zeke had gone to talk in the car. They were always going to share secrets in the car, which was rude. Isaac's father didn't believe in having so many secrets. The car was parked right outside the door of their motel room, so Isaac didn't dare sneak away. He looked longingly at the phone, but Zeke had taken the talking part with him, just so Isaac couldn't try to use it. He would have, too. He wished now that he had been fake with Zeke, pretended to like him, because then Zeke might trust him more. And if Zeke trusted him, his guard would drop, and Isaac would find a way to make a phone call.
Not to the police, though, not after his experience with that guard man. If the guard man, a man who wore a gun, didn't believe Isaac, then a police officer probably wouldn't believe him either. Maybe it wasn't a crime what his mother was doing? Besides, she would just convince everyone that Isaac was a liar. He would be the boy who cried wolf, even though he hadn't-he was screaming for people to look at the wolf that only he could see. No, he had to get to his father, tell him where they were. Only his father would believe him, right away, and not waste time asking for other sides.
Penina leaned over to Efraim and whispered something, making him laugh. Her voice was a low mumble, but Isaac wasn't sure he would know what she was saying even if she spoke up. When the twins spoke their made-up language, just for them, it made Isaac lonely and nervous. When Zeke was around, they barely spoke at all.
His mother and Zeke came in, their cheeks flushed as if the night had turned cold. Zeke made a big show of attaching the talking part back to the phone-the handset, that's what it was called-looking at Isaac as if daring him to say anything. It was as if Zeke wanted to say, I'm smarter than you! Isaac wanted to shout back, So what? You're a grown-up, you're supposed to be smarter. Instead they just looked at each other, like two men in a western about to have a gun-fight, and Isaac's resolve to make Zeke like him fell away. He would never in his life be that good a pretender.
But you didn't always have to be the smartest one to win. His dad had taught him that, when Isaac was learning to play Advanced Mission Battleship, the new improved version with missiles and lots of sound effects, so when you sank someone's ship, it made a really satisfying kaboom sound, with splashing, and when you finally won, the woman's voice announced in a pleased way, "Con-grat-u-la-tions, Admiral." Isaac almost never, ever beat his father at Battleship-only twice so far, and both times had been luck. His father had pressed the wrong buttons, firing his Tomahawks in the wrong pattern, even though he knew where Isaac's PT boat was. So Isaac didn't think his wins really counted.
But his father had said, "Don't scorn luck. A lot of my success in life has been luck. Ditto my father's, and his father before him. If I could wish just one thing for you, Isaac, I think I would wish you to be lucky."
"Really?" Isaac thought his father might at least wish he had a ninety-mile-per-hour fastball or early admission to a really good college.
His father had taken him into his lap. (How Isaac missed that lap, which was big and warm and safe, although he was really getting too big for such things.) "Well, I guess I would wish first and foremost that you would be a virtuous man."
"What does that mean?"
"To be good, to have… well, virtues. To be honest and kind and modest. You know, the Christians take credit for the Golden Rule-love your neighbor as you love yourself-but the Jews have their own version, and it is much older. And, I think, a little wiser. We say, 'Do not do to your neighbor what you would not want done to yourself.' That makes more sense to me. I don't think it's possible to love others as we love ourselves and our families, but we can avoid doing anything to them that we would not want done to ourselves."
"What if someone is really mean to you? Can you be mean back? Since they started it?"
"It depends. Is someone being mean to you?"
Actually, someone had been mean to him, a boy at school, calling him teacher's pet and Rubin the Nose-Rubber, which made no sense, but everyone laughed as if it were extremely funny. It had been terribly important at the time, but Isaac no longer remembered why that boy disliked him so, or even why it bothered him. It was so long ago, so far away, back in the second grade. The things that once made him cry-another boy's insults, a reprimand from his father, a scary dream-would never make him cry now. He was determined that nothing would make him cry, not in front of Zeke.
He cried only in the privacy of the trunk. Or, sometimes, late at night, long after everyone was asleep. Even then he had learned the trick of crying silently, without even a snuffle, so it was barely like crying at all.