Katie Letcher Lyle

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Finders Weepers

Finders Weepers

© Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1982; Scholastic, 1984

To someone who has been named Most Sensible in the eighth grade, it seems highly unlikely that a famous treasure could remain hidden for well over a hundred years, with so many people searching for it. Lee, who each summer visits her family home in the Virginia mountains, has never believed in the existence of the Beale Treasure. But there are always treasure hunters around Lavesia, dropping by her family’s store with their theories about where the treasure is located.

This summer everything seems different from other years. Lee's grandmother Malillie is sick, and Hunter, her friend, is disturbingly grown up; her uncle Graham is not the person Lee had known before, and even the weather is ominously different. When she stumbles on the cave, with its mysterious contents, Lee begins to doubt her own eyes. Can she have found the Beale Treasure? And if she has, are the strange things that happen connected with it? Events reach a dramatic and terrifying climax as Lee finds that her perceptions of the world are greatly changed.

1

When I finally get a minute to myself and make it to the back porch, it's almost six. Earlier I had to hang up on my friend Barbara when Drew, trying to zip his pants up, knocked into the toilet seat and it fell and bonked him on the head and he started to cry. I had to keep him quiet because Mama was resting, and I never got a chance to even call Barbara back. But Gee and I got a good start on his tree house today while Drew took his nap. Now late sun tints the letter I’ve been trying to read a faint gold. Which is just the color I figure this letter ought to be, since it’s from my uncle Graham Eldridge, Graham the Great. He’s my happy-go-lucky uncle, the black sheep of the family, that’s according to Daddy.

Inside the house, in the background, life goes on: the smell of supper cooking, the clang of one pan against another, Andrew and Green fighting. It’s my first day out of school, and I couldn’t even get away to meet Barbara and Camille at the drugstore. What was I so excited about all winter, just waiting to get out for vacation? I wipe perspiration off my face and wonder what July’s going to be like with the first of June this hot.

The kids are tired because it’s what Graham calls lowblood-sugar time and Mama has principles about eating between meals.

“If you won't give it to me, you can't ever play with my cards again!” Green, usually the patient one, sounds really angry. I hope supper will be ready soon. I guess I should go offer to help.

“I won’t I won’t I won’t!” Andrew’s baby voice demands to be heard, ending in a long quivering wail.

“Lee will make you!” cries Gee, old enough that his threats sound effective. Again Drew wails.

On the porch steps, I sigh, drawn into their bouts even with my body in another room! If Mama would just give them a snack about five, they’d be okay until supper. But she just says, “I don’t know why they have to fight all the time.”

“They don’t,” I tell her. “Just when they’re cross and tired and hungry. It only happens at the end of the day. You could just give them a banana or something.”

She’s big on Eating the Right Things, but that doesn’t grab her. “They wouldn’t eat a bite for supper. Bananas are very filling. Besides, I’m not running a short-order cafe. Now get out of my hair, Miss Sensible, so I can drain these potatoes.” She takes a sip of her old-fashioned, drags out an orange section, skins it down and consumes it. Maybe that doesn’t count as eating. She usually has her drink before Daddy gets home, so as to avoid as much as possible his harangues about her drinking. He makes it sound as if she’s an alcoholic.

I suppose Drew and Green will survive their childhoods. You could say I did.

But Graham’s letter, heavy with possibility, is waiting to be read, and already I can hear his voice, always excited and exciting, bigger than life. Someday Graham is going to take me to Europe. Someday he’s going to buy me a fur coat. He’s already taken me to a bar, though Mama and Daddy don’t know, needless to say. He thinks I need a horse of my own to ride. (When he told Daddy that at Christmas, it infuriated Daddy, who thinks you ought not to spoil kids.) With Graham I drank champagne one time last year until I was a little dizzy.

But this time the letter is different. I find a frightening note in the first sentence, and quickly take off my glasses and breathe on them and yank out a shirttail to wipe them clean before I put them back on. Now my eyes trip along the lines of Graham’s rather dainty writing, trying to absorb everything, at once, for the first sentence says, “Honey, I don’t at all mean to alarm you—I’m writing to Hy and Kate too—but Malillie has had a mild stroke.”

Now my vision scatters wildly, tumbling over words:

“. . . not too severe . . . the doctor says . . . business is slow at the store . . . a nurse is out of the question . . . Bessie is so old now . . . only comes a couple of hours . . . now you’re out of school, you’d be such a help . . . always so responsible . . .

“. . . So you made it through the eighth grade! want to give you a graduation present, but will wait to see what you need . . . high heel shoes?

“Hope you will come, and soon . . . Malillie loves you so . . ,"

Inside the house, Mama cries out, “Drew! Put that knife down this instant! Do you want to cut your hand off?” And Drew begins to wail mournfully.

“Leeeee?”A voice comes through the screen, so close I can feel the hot breath carrying it. “I need to show you something.“

“In a second, Drew,” I tell him. “Let me finish Graham’s letter.”

“It’s a baby elephant,” Drew says. “A real one. It’s for you.”

I look up and can’t help smiling. “But you already gave me a tiger, and a whale, today. Give the elephant to Mama. She needs an elephant.”

Andrew frowns and shakes his head. “She has to cook. You know she doesn’t like pets in the house. It’s for you, Lee.”

“Bring it here, then,” I say, sighing, opening the screen door. My mind is already back on the letter. “Thanks very much.”

Out he comes, stepping down a giant step, and tumbles into my lap, curling up immediately into a round body-fitting shape. He smells of dead dry grass and souring milk. “You need a bath,“ I say into his soft hair, thinking, Malillie, ill? Malillie is the strongest, best person I’ve ever known. She’s pure gold. She is like nobody else in my life. She isn’t very old, but she’s fat. What’s a mild stroke anyway? Certainly not too serious, or Graham would have called us up. She’s not in a hospital, so it couldn’t be too bad.

“Gosh, it’s hot,” I say aloud, wishing to be rid of the weight of the sticky little body of my brother hunkered down against mine. Around his soft head I struggle to reread the letter slowly, while Drew cautions me not to squeeze the elephant too tight. “See, he's just a baby!”

What does a mild stroke mean?

I am being asked to come. I go to see them every summer, but usually near the end of June, in time for Malillie’s birthday on the twenty-seventh. I love to help with the canning and preserving and jelly-making. I’ve known the dates everything “comes in” since I was little: I miss the first wild strawberries around June 1, but I get there in time for everything else: blackcaps come in just about the time I get there, and wineberries July l, and blackberries ten days later. The corn starts August 1, and then I have to go home usually before the huckleberries come in, late in August. Sometimes I stay in the store for Graham while he harvests the June apples or the peaches in the tiny orchard out back. I’ve been doing that since I was ten. I love running the store all by myself, and there’s nothing to it.

That time, July and August, suits Mama, because Daddy takes his vacation and can help with the boys while I’m gone. Mama doesn’t have much stamina, and often seems sort of swamped by her life. Sometimes she has to go away to a fancy hospital sort of place called Westwood for a few weeks to rest, and then I more or less run the whole house by myself. Will she be able to manage if I go to Lavesia?

In my lap, Drew stirs. “I’m hungry,” he whines. “I wish had a waffle.”

“A waffle?” I say, giving him a little hug. “That’s sillyl. You don’t eat waffles for supper. How waffle!”

Drew sucks on his fingers.

“Don’t do that, hon,” I tell him. “Look how dirty they are. Listen, supper’s almost ready. I’ll make you waffles for breakfast tomorrow, okay?”

“With maple syrup?”

“Sure,” I say.

“And butter?”

“Lots of butter. Melted butter.”

“Don’t let Gee have any,” Drew says. “He’s mean. Mean Gee.”

“Oh,” I say, doing the best I can at mediation, “we wouldn’t want Green to starve. Let’s give him maybe just a little one, okay?”

“Well . . ." he says, hesitating.

Behind us, Green leans on the door. “Lee, after supper, would you ride bikes with me?” What he means is, he’d like to ride all the way to the club and pretend its big round driveway is the Indianapolis Speedway, and zoom around it until he’s beat, while the people are all inside eating dinner. Without me, he’s only allowed to go to the end of the street.

I smile up at him. “Okay, Gee. I guess so.”

“Can I go too?“ Drew asks, with big pitiful eyes.

“Honey,” I say, “that’s a little too far for you.”

He puckers up. “I have to go,” he wails. “You have to take me!”

Over the din, Mama calls, “Lee, can’t you do something?” She means, to make them quit, for now Gee is saying, “You’re too little. You’re a baby. See, you’re crying!”

Just then up the cement slab cruises a dusty blue Chevrolet, heavy and old. “Oh, look!” I shout, with exaggerated excitement. “Here comes Daddy. Daddy’s home. Now we can eat”

The car turns into the parking space. But before I can scrabble to my feet with the heavy baby on my lap, Daddy’s voice shouts, “Lee, goddamn it, get these boards and junk out of the driveway before I run over them! Can’t you ever put anything away?” And then I remember: Gee’s tree house! Oh, no! I think. Now we’ll have to listen to how irresponsible I am all through dinner. For a brief instant I have a vision: of wealth, of freedom, of grown-up-ness, of long sea voyages and beautiful clothes and palm trees and music. Oh, when will something happen to take me away from all this!

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