Vincent should have been spending spring break at the beach or Knott’s Berry Farm or at least having a video-game marathon with his friends. Instead, he was staring out the backseat window at the endless Texas countryside rolling by. He let his eyes unfocus, and the field, cows, and clumps of short trees blurred like an impressionist painting. But painting—or rather, not painting—was what had gotten him into this mess. Mom thought she was being subtle about it, but Vincent knew the only reason she and Dad had booked a cruise out of Galveston instead of Los Angeles, where they lived, was her “secret” plan to reconnect him with art. Mom wanted Vincent and his sister, Lili, to meet her uncle Leo, who was some kind of art restorer.
Not just meet but stay with him for the whole week of spring break.
In the middle-of-nowhere Texas with no cell service.
At least when her plan failed, Mom might finally quit bugging him to paint again.
When Mom and Dad had sprung this plan on them, Vincent had tried to talk his way out of it. They’d never even met Mom’s extended family. Mom had just sighed and responded that sometimes family is complicated. Lili, of course, had instantly added Uncle Leo to the family tree she was making for school, right alongside Vincent, Mom, Dad, and the birth parents she had never met.
Vincent smiled at the memory. Lili was always ready to welcome someone new, though she hadn’t always been that way. Three years ago, when Vincent was nine, his parents had adopted three-year-old Lili from China. They’d spent almost two weeks with her in China, and then finally, on the day before they needed to fly home, Lili had clutched Vincent’s hand, refusing to let go. Some siblings didn’t get along, but Vincent and Lili had been close ever since that moment, even though it had taken a while before they spoke the same language.
“I’m amazed you can still find this place without GPS,” Dad said as Mom pulled off the two-lane road onto a gravel drive.
Vincent got his first glimpse of his great-uncle Leo’s two-story white ranch house. It stood alone in a field dotted with red and blue wildflowers. Vincent felt like he’d been dropped in an endless world on Minecraft, minus the ability to build.
“Remember,” Mom said as they got out of the car, “your great-uncle does some very important art conservation he can tell you about, and he’s got lots of beautiful paintings you can look at. But no touching the art.” She gave Vincent a very serious look as if this were something he might actually be tempted to do. “Understand?”
“No problem.” He wasn’t planning on touching the art or doing anything else with it.
“I want to see all the pretty pictures,” Lili said. She hopped up and down, her ever-present toy bunny, Mr. Rumples, tucked snugly under her arm.
“You can look at all the pictures that aren’t in Uncle Leo’s work studio. And there’s lots to do outside. You can pick wildflowers, catch grasshoppers. There’s even a river, but you should not go there without your brother. Vincent, please make sure to watch your sister.” Mom sighed as she looked out across the field with the hint of a smile. “I used to love it here.”
The front door burst open, and a thin man with wiry gray hair and a bushy white mustache strode toward them with arms stretched wide.
“Artemisia! Jeffery! How the heck are y’all?” His deep Texas drawl surprised Vincent. Mom had grown up nearby and didn’t really have an accent. Did she use to talk like that?
Uncle Leo hugged Mom and shook Dad’s hand before turning to Vincent and Lili. “Vincent! You remind me so much of your grandfather with those brown eyes.” He clapped him on the shoulder, then squatted. “And you must be Lilias.” He stuck out his hand for her to shake, and she gave him a high five. Vincent smiled while his parents tried to show Lili how to shake hands.
A laugh from the porch drew Vincent’s attention. A tall girl in short overalls stood in the doorway. She looked about Vincent’s age, with olive skin and short copper-red hair sticking up all over her head like she’d cut it herself. His own curly brown hair might be untamable, but at least he tried. She had a gray smear of something across her cheek, and more spots covered her arms and clothes like she’d just lost a mud fight to a pig. He wouldn’t be caught dead in public looking like that. Even if there was barely anyone here to see him.
“Georgia,” Uncle Leo called, waving her down to join them, “come meet your second cousins.”
Vincent hadn’t realized he had a second cousin, much less that he’d apparently be spending a week with her. Hopefully she wouldn’t be as weird as she looked.
“Georgia! It’s nice to finally meet you.” Mom’s fake-happy voice set Vincent on edge. She talked like that only when things weren’t going the way she had planned but she didn’t want anyone to know. She gathered Georgia into an awkward hug, but Vincent didn’t miss the worried glance she shared with Dad over Georgia’s shoulder. Yup, something was off here. “Uncle Leo didn’t tell me you’d be here! Are your parents visiting as well?”
“No, ma’am, it’s just me,” Georgia responded. Now that she was closer, the spots on her face and arms definitely looked like mud.
“I see.” Mom looked significantly at Uncle Leo. “Vincent, why don’t you grab the bags? And, Georgia, do you mind helping them get settled while we have a little chat with your grandfather?”
Georgia nodded and jogged down to the car. “I can carry Lili’s bag upstairs.” She lifted Lili’s flower-covered suitcase from the trunk.
She seemed nice enough, even if she looked like a homeless person. So why was Mom acting so jumpy? Something strange was going on.
Copyright © 2023 by Carolyn Leiloglou; Illustrated by Vivienne To. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.