Read The Secret of Ferrell Savage Online
Authors: J. Duddy Gill & Sonia Chaghatzbanian
To Mary Ann Duddy, who supports my dream and laughs on cue
Thank you, first, to my sister, Mary, whose seventh-grade diary was the best book I ever read as a kid, and her honest words were what inspired me to write my own.
Thanks to Meghan Gates, who introduced me to Alferd Packer and then read the manuscript before anyone else. Thanks to my Weird Martian Gnomes, Christy Lenzi and Elizabeth Reimer, who share this journey with me. Robin Prehn, a special thanks to you for being the best writer friend another writer could have. The story couldn't have come this far without the critiques from brilliant writers Angela Ackerman, Jaye Robin Brown, and Deborah Halverson. And Jody Erikson, too, who isn't a writer but offered great suggestions and is all-around lovely. Thank you, Susan Wroble, who once read my first writing attempts and said, “Keep going!” and because of that, I did.
At Atheneum, I am grateful for the sharp eyes and creativity of Jeannie Ng, Kaitlin Severini, and Sonia Chaghatzbanian, who is also responsible for the adorable illustrations. And, especially, I'd like to thank my easygoing editor, Ariel Colletti, who loves Ferrell as much as I do, and Ruta Rimas, who also helped me raise him to be the fine young man he is today. Which leads me to an even bigger thank-you to the best agent in the world, Wendy Schmalz, who hung in there and found Ariel and Ruta for us.
There are no words, even in a thesaurus, that can express my love and gratitude for Mike, Jane, and Annie. Let's celebrate with pizza and kale!
EVERY WINTER, ON THE DAY
after Christmas, our town holds the Big Sled Race on Golden Hill. You'd think that after fifty years they would've come up with a better title for the event, especially since no one's used an actual store-bought sled in the race since before I was even born. It really should be called Get-to-the-Bottom-of-the-Hill-as-Fast-as-You-Can-on-Whatever-You-Want Race.
I've seen kids slide down on beanbag chairs, cafeteria trays, old refrigerator boxes, and even a torn-off car door. Last year Jerry Dunderhead built what he called a ski-ike by attaching a ski to his mountain
bike. He tipped over at the starting gate, broke his collarbone, and that was that. Still, it could've been so awesome. Then there were the four high school seniors who built this thing that looked like a boat. It didn't go fast, so they had to jump out and push it most of the way, but it was cool. They had speakers hooked up to it, playing this song that I recognized but didn't know at the time,
The Ride of the Valkyries
Mr. Spinelli from Spinelli's Market has been the judge and timekeeper since my dad was a kid. He stands at the finish line with his gold pocket watch tied to his belt by a thick piece of string. One year he dropped that same watch into the deep snow and couldn't find it. So for the rest of the contestants' runs, he had to count “one Mississippi, two Mississippi.” Some people complained he cheated when he declared his grandson, Franco Spinelli, the winner. And I saw that when Franco sped by with
painted on the side of his cardboard box, Mr. Spinelli got a little teary eyed, which would understandably slow down his Mississippis. Luckily, when the snow melted that spring, some kid found the watch and gave it back to Mr. Spinelli, and no one's accused him of cheating since.
Because you have to be at least twelve years old to compete, for the past eleven years my friends have
been feeling an itchâworse than a scratchy sweater with no undershirtâto get their turn. It was like that every year. Twelve-year-olds are willing to bleed and break bones to win.
But not me. I didn't care about being the kid holding the big trophy at the end and watching all the other kids sniff up their tears and fake-clap. Being responsible for making my friends trudge all the way home, moping through the snow and dragging their home-built contraptions like they were roadkill, was not for me.
On Christmas day Mary Vittles stopped by to check out my under-the-tree stash and to see my “racing apparatus,” as she called it.
Mary and I have known each other since we were in diapers. She and her mom live down the street from us, and when Ms. Vittles went back to work at the Colorado Inn, my mom offered to take care of Mary. Ms. Vittles said she'd pay Mom, but Mom insisted Mary was good for me, that she toughened me up. Besides, Mom liked having Mary around.
“Ms. Vittles has rent to pay and a little girl to provide for. It's a luxury for me to be able to stay home and take care of Ferrell,” Mom always said. We weren't rich or anything, but Dad's job as senior
librarian at the Golden Hill Library kept us well fed. Ms. Vittles never married Mary's dad, who ran out on them before Mary was even born.
“It's been tough on poor, sweet little Mary,” Mom always said.
Don't be fooled by the words “sweet little Mary.” She's kind of like honey mustard. The taste isn't bad, but you still feel like you got tricked into trying it. So, whether or not Mary and I were really friends was never a question for our moms. We're stuck with each other. I'm pretty sure I mean that in a good way. She's bossy and a know-it-all, but there are things I like about her.
I'll need some time to think about what they are, though.
When Mary arrived, Mom and I were clearing the dishes off the table.
“Mary, sweetheart, how about a little Christmas supper?” Mom offered even before Mary had taken off her coat. Mom pointed to the platter of leftover Tofurkey. “I'll fix it up with some cranberries and potatoes.”
“No, thanks,” Mary answered. She pulled off her hat and smoothed the static out of her brown, wavy hair. “My hypothalamus is sending signals that I've reached maximum consumption.”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“I'm full,” she said. “Mom brought home some real turkey and a slice of ham from the restaurant. I made canned corn and sweet potatoes with butter.”
I'd never eaten meat, but just hearing her say the words “turkey” and “ham” made saliva drip from my fangs. Even the butter, something else I'd never had, sounded so good and smooth. Just saying the word tasted sweet and creamy. Butter.
Mary tossed a chunk of Tofurkey to Buddy, my beagle. “All right, let's see what you built,” she said. She headed toward the kitchen door that leads to the garage, but I didn't budge. She looked over her shoulder. “You're not coming.”
Mary turned around and put her hands on her hips. “No way,” she said. “The race is tomorrow and you haven't built your apparatus yet! You have”âshe looked at her watchâ“less than ten hours to put something together.”
She told me this as if I didn't already know.
“It's all up here,” I said, pointing to my head. “I have a plan, it's brilliant, and you'll be surprised.” I couldn't tell her my brilliant plan was to be a spectator.
She shook her head in disbelief. “You've got nothing.”
She was right. The sled-making department in my head was empty.
“Let's go give yours another ride,” I offered. “Just to see how the drain's staying plugged.”
Mary was big on Dumpster diving. Back in the fall she had found an old metal kitchen sinkâthe kind with rounded edgesâand she was determined to make it into a Big Sled Race winner. She'd cemented a plug into the drain hole, sanded it down, and waxed it up. Then she'd sat inside the sink and fallen over backward in the snow. I would have said,
Oh, well, it doesn't work,
and gone to find something else. But not Mary. She immediately began abdominal muscle exercises to help her hold her balance while curled up in a ball. After three weeks of training she tried it again. She sat in her silver sink, lifted her legs off the ground, leaned back just so, and zoom. The ride was supersmooth and steady. I hadn't seen the other contenders, but I still predicted she would win.
“I'm not worried,” Mary said now as she leaned against the counter and folded her arms. She tried to make her brown eyes look sleepy and calm, but I didn't buy it. I know Mary. She hates losing, so she
works super extra hard at everything she does. She was our school council's vice president, beating out the eighth graders, and last year her science project on heliotropes won second at state.
I rubbed my hand over my belly and was just considering a third piece of pumpkin pie for myself when Mary said, “So, did you get too busy and run out of time, or are you just being indolent?”
“Maybe,” I said. I didn't know what “indolent” meant.
“That second one,” I said.
“Lazy,” she said, throwing her hands hopelessly into the air. “It's like your mind just stops working sometimes.”
I was used to Mary saying stuff like that. She always accused me of not paying attention or of being stuck in a daydream. When we do our homework, she calls me “airhead” or says, “Your brain's a muscleâuse it or lose it.” But it's not that I'm not trying; it's just that words, sometimes even full sentences, jump around the page when I read. And when I listen in class, it's the same kind of thing. Words float around close to my head but don't always make it in through my ears. I'd stopped trying to explain it to Mary years ago.