Fiction by Megan McDonald
Illustrations by Bruce MacPherson
Ralph Waldo climbed over his older brother and plopped down in the middle of the back seat.
“Move over, Squirt,” said Henry in his self-important-sounding 12-year-old voice.
“No way. There’s cooties on that seat … from when I … you know.”
Henry made gagging noises and pulled a puke face. R.W. couldn’t even say that “p” word. He couldn’t think about getting carsick. Not with a long road trip ahead.
“I need my personal space,” said Henry. But R.W. had already buckled himself in. It was going to be a loooong week. Especially without a phone. No videogames. No movies. No texting friends.
Dad had some loony-tunes idea to drive halfway across Ohio to see a dead president’s house. What a way to spend spring break. Then Mom up and decided that the trip would be more fun without screens and stuff. Nothing with an on/off switch.
So they could spend time together as a family. PLEASE.
“Hey, um, don’t we need the phone for the GPS?” Henry asked the front seat. “How will we know where we’re going?”
Mom passed back a paper map with green dots all over it. It was like college-level origami just to fold the thing.
Yep. It was going to be a long trip. And they hadn’t even left the driveway.
R.W. paged through his Infinity Book of Amazing Facts.
“Did you know the first roads were made by elephants? And King Tut might have died because he got bit by a hippo?”
“Bitten,” said Mom.
“Where are we going again?”
R.W. asked for the 13th time. Henry wished his little brother had an on/off switch. Then they could have left him at home. Ha-ha. He laughed at his own joke.
“What’s so funny?” R.W. asked.
“Never mind. We’re going to a dead president’s house. Warren G. Harding.”
“It’ll be educational,” said Mom.
“And they show old silent movies on weekends,” said Dad.
Henry slumped in his seat. Parents made no sense. They weren’t allowed to watch DVDs in the car, but they were driving a bazillion miles to watch some old movie? Go figure.
“Warren G. Harding was like the worst president ever,” said R.W.
“Why do you say that?” asked Dad.
“My book says it.” R.W. stabbed the page that said 10 Worst Presidents.
“He played poker while his friends stole stuff. A giant teapot or something.”
“The Teapot Dome Scandal,” said Mom. “I’ll bet every president has done things they’re not proud of.”
“How about we keep an open mind,” said Dad. “Besides, the trip is half the fun.”
Henry studied the map. Three inches to go.
One inch on a map was like tons of miles.
“Punch buggy blue!” called R.W. when he saw a blue VW Beetle.
“Punch buggy red!” called Henry, punching R.W. in the arm.
“Punch buggy green!” Henry shouted. “Punch buggy red again.” Punch, punch.
“Ouch! Henry’s punching me!”
“You started it,” said Henry. He grabbed the pillow and thumped his brother over the head.
“Pillow fight!” R.W. bopped him back.
“Boys!” said Mom. “No hitting!
No pillow-fighting. Think of a no-contact car game, please.”
They played seven games of Tic-Tac-Toe, three games of Hangman and a game of I Spy, until R.W. started to cry.
“Henry won’t let me win,” he moaned.
“I won fair and square,” said Henry.
Little brothers sure were a pain. He studied the map some more.
“So, what are these green dots on the map?” asked Henry.
“Places of interest,” said Dad.
“More dead presidents?”
“Henry David!” Mom scolded.
“Sorry.” He sank back and tried to figure out the green dots.
R.W. yelled, “Giant ice-cream cone!”
Henry saw it, too. A building in the shape of a giant swirling, twirling icecream cone! Before you could say “banana split,” Henry and R.W. were licking the melting ice cream running down their arms.
“Guess what,” said R.W. “Dad says we can stop and see a real castle. Do you think it has a moat?”
“They have castles in Ohio?” Henry searched the map. “Who knew?”
“Not me,” said Dad.
After a tour of the stone castle with a real dungeon, Henry asked if they could visit a cemetery next.
“We’ll never make it to the Harding home,” Mom pointed out, “if we keep taking so many detours.”
“Just one more?” Henry pleaded. Before you could say “mad scientist,” Henry and Ralph Waldo were standing in front of a spooky grave. A grave that read FRANKENSTEIN. The real Dr. Frankenstein’s grave!
“It’s aliiiive,” said Henry, spooking his brother. R.W. screamed and hid behind Mom.
“We used to come here as kids,” said Dad. “Every Halloween. We’d dare each other to see who could stand on Frankenstein’s gravestone the longest.”
“Did you win?” asked R.W.
“We never lasted more than a few seconds,” Dad chuckled.
Henry and R.W. stood next to the gravestone. “Take our picture!” said Henry.
They piled back into the car.
In what felt like about 20 more hours, they finally, eventually, at last, pulled up in front of the President Warren G. Harding house.
Mom and Dad stared. Henry glared. R.W.’s mouth hung open. They could not believe their eyes.
C L O S E D!
The sign said “Closed for Repairs.”
“So we came all this way for nothing?” R.W. blurted.
Henry elbowed him. “What do you mean? We saw a real-live castle, ate Twistees from a giant ice-cream cone and stood on Frankenstein’s grave.”
“Whoa. I’m brave,” said R.W.
“Sure are. I timed us, too. You lasted three whole seconds longer than me.”
“You win.” Mom and Dad smiled at Henry.
“Can we stay in the haunted hotel tonight?” asked Henry. “It’s not far, and it’ll be way cool! The rooms are named for presidents, and a girl ghost haunts the halls.”
“Can we? Can we?” asked R.W.
“I don’t see why not,” said Mom.
“If you’re up for it, we are,” said Dad.
R.W. twisted the end of his T-shirt into a knot. Suddenly, he wasn’t feeling so brave. “But what if I hear noises? And get spooked? And can’t get to sleep?”
“Don’t sweat it!” said Henry. “I’ll be right there with you. And I have a flashlight, so you won’t be scared of the dark. I’ll even read you to sleep.”
He flipped to the page about presidents.
“We can learn all about President Warren G. Harding.”
“For real. Did you know he was the first president to visit Alaska? And he played the cornet. And get this: He had a dog named Laddie Boy, who had his own chair at big important meetings.”
“Cool,” said R.W. “Tomorrow, maybe we can go to that town that has a white squirrel.”
“And that weird museum of all the stuff people have swallowed, like buttons and bobby pins and bones.”
“And don’t forget the flying-saucer house. …”
Megan McDonald is the creator of the popular award-winning Stink and Judy Moody series, as well as many other books for young readers.