Bonnie Libros stared out the bug-smudged window of her father's old Wagoneer, the faded gray highway miles rolling away beneath the wheels as she fixed her eyes on the horizon, mesmerized by the waving green lines of newly sprouted corn in the farm fields that flew past. A flash of brown flickered across the edge of her vision and she turned to see a pair of deer disappearing into the tree line.
Sighing, Bonnie slumped against the back of her seat and pushed her sunglasses up on her nose. As she stared out the windshield at the endless road and hazy green fields, she glimpsed her reflection in the side-view mirror and fought the urge to sigh again. Her carefully crafted bun had collapsed into a toppling cascade of wavy brown strands that blew over her shoulders in the breeze from the half-opened window. Pulling the elastic band loose, Bonnie shook her head and gathered her long hair into a snug ponytail.
Next to her, her father hummed happily along with the music on the radio, an old Neil Diamond song that he claimed to know by heart. Bonnie knew better; once the song reached the chorus, he would fumble for the words and ad lib the lyrics. Closing her eyes, she feigned sleep and waited for the inevitable moment.
Her father's humming grew louder, competing with the grumbling sound of Phillipe the Jeep's engine. The Wagoneer was older than Bonnie by over a decade, but her father insisted he'd never need another car as long as he had duct tape, Bondo, and an auto salvage yard for spare parts. Even though he claimed that fixing the old Jeep was a perfect hands-on lesson for the science and engineering classes he had taught at Old North High School, Bonnie knew his attachment to was more than merely practical. Glued to the instrument panel, its edges torn and colors faded, was the photograph of her mom that Bonnie had taken the day her father had brought the Jeep home and asked her mom to name it.
"Name it? Hector, you're kidding, right?" Her mom had laughed, and Bonnie had captured the moment as her finger clicked down on the button of the old Polaroid camera she'd bought from an estate sale at an apartment in the building next to theirs. The unfinished photo slid out of the slot at the bottom like a magical ticket.
Bonnie remembered watching it develop, her mom's wild curls and wide smile slowly filling the narrow white photo frame like a beam of sun breaking through gray clouds. Squeezing her eyes tightly against the breeze that pushed through the window, she willed away the image in her mind, and forced herself back to the present.
As the song crashed toward the crescendoing chorus, Bonnie heard her father's humming shift to a mumbling of vague syllables. She pressed her head against the cool glass of the window and opened her eyes again. This time she saw a large green highway sign noting the distance to various destinations ahead. The last line on the sign read CASTLEWOOD - 12 MILES. She swallowed, trying to quell the knot of fear that had plagued her since buckling her seatbelt that morning.
As her father's random mumbling settled into a few repeated words, all sung off-key, Bonnie endured another round of mixed-up lyrics. When she sighed, he finally stopped, glancing over at her.
"What's wrong, Bibi?" He flashed her a smile. "My singing is that bad, huh?"
The old nickname pricked the edges of Bonnie's memory like a key sliding into a well-worn lock. Pushing away the echoes of her mom's voice, Bonnie felt the knot of fear grow into a full-blown panic that held her in a tight grip. She made a gesture at the window as another sign loomed in the distance.
"Can’t we just turn around? Castlewood doesn’t even sound like a real place where people live. It sounds like… like…,” Bonnie floundered, trying to find the words. “Like a theme park for little kids.”
Her father gave her a measured look.
"Bibi.” He glanced between the road and Bonnie’s face. Seeing her worried expression, he sighed and shrugged with a half-smile. His brown eyes crinkled and his moustache dipped to the right with the motion of his shoulders. “Work with me… please.” He paused and cleared his throat as he turned down the radio until Neil Diamond’s voice was a faint whisper in the background.
“I know you’re scared about moving, but you don’t need to worry so much. Maybe -” he paused, tapping a finger against the steering wheel. “Maybe just think of it as an adventure? It’s a great opportunity for both of us. And a chance for you to finally spread your wings.” He paused, then added. “I know you wanted to stay in the city, but let’s give Castlewood a chance. And,” he added pointedly, turning to give Bonnie a look. “This move gives your Aunt Alma a chance, too.”
Bonnie took a deep breath and held it for a moment before letting the air escape her like a deflated balloon. She turned away from her father and stared out the window, blinking her eyes hard behind her sunglasses.
“I miss her,” she finally said softly, so softly she didn’t think her father had heard her. But out of the corner of her eye, she saw him nodding. He continued to tap the steering wheel, the drumming sound filling the silence.
“She’s going to miss you, too,” he finally said. “She’s been with you every day for the last five years.” He fell quiet for several seconds. “But did you see how excited she was when we dropped her off at the airport?” He chuckled, then added to himself, “My little sister, the world traveler.”
Bonnie nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She’d never seen Alma as animated as she had been that morning when they had dropped her off at the airport, her hiking backpack loaded with everything she would need for the next two months as she joined her roommates from college for their long-planned pilgrimage to walk the Camino de Santiago together.
A pang of guilt hit Bonnie as she remembered the look of excitement in her aunt’s eyes that morning at the airport. Alma had wrapped Bonnie in a fierce hug, whispering, “You’re ready for this!” before pulling away and racing toward the gate, waving wildly at her old roommates, who had waited to board the plane with her. Bonnie had watched her disappear through the boarding gate, struck by the sight of Alma with her friends, all of them giddy with the thrill of travel.
“She gave up so much to help us.” Bonnie barely heard her father’s whisper. “Leaving school, staying with us, then homeschooling you.” His voice trailed off as he shook his head.
Up ahead, as the road crested a low hill, another green sign appeared again, suspended over the highway, this one stating in all caps that the next exit was for Castlewood. No other signs appeared next to it, nothing to show any attractions, museums, galleries, or historic places of note to explore.
Bonnie’s father pointed at the sign. "It is a funny name for a town in the middle of farm country. I heard there's a half-finished castle on a bluff above the river that some rich recluse tried to build a hundred years or so ago." He winked at her, then smoothed his moustache as he looked back toward the road. "But no theme parks, as far as I know."
"So they named the entire town after an unfinished building project?" Bonnie asked as she crossed her arms, feeling the rough edge of the seat belt rubbing against her elbows. She pulled down her sweater sleeves, smoothing the wrinkles.
"Maybe. Towns have been named after stranger things." He chuckled again. "Besides, they hired me as chair of the science department at Castlewood High, not the history department. I bet you could ask your history teacher this fall."
Bonnie’s breathing grew shallow as she tried to imagine the inside of a classroom. Me, in a real school? A high school? Her heart thudded with panic.
“l, uh, guess I could,” she finally replied as she squeezed her elbows and turned to stare out the window again. The flat farm fields fell away into small stands of trees and little rolling hills that disappeared into the horizon.
Bonnie glanced at her messenger bag by her feet. I hope there's at least a library. A big one, where I can hide. Inside her bag were books and bundles of brochures from the museums that were her second home in the city, places Alma had taken her until Bonnie was old enough to roam their halls alone.
Her father edged the Jeep over toward the exit lane off the highway. Ahead, at the top of the overpass, Bonnie saw a looming billboard that said Welcome Home to Castlewood!
Bonnie’s heart sank. All morning, leaving the city had felt like a dream, but seeing the sign made moving feel so final, so real.
It’s felt like a dream - or a nightmare - since the day Papa told me about taking a new job at Castlewood High.
Bonnie had responded to the news with a pleading look before picking her book up, racing to her room, and slamming the door. She had spent the rest of the night laying on top of her bed, frantically thinking of some reason to change her father's mind. Just because we talked about me going to high school after this year doesn't mean it actually has to happen.
But none of her carefully crafted arguments had changed her father's mind, and Bonnie had alternated between watching the movers as they packed up their tiny apartment and Alma as she had packed her hiker's backpack, shoving guidebooks and extra socks in the side pockets.
That morning, surveying the empty apartment, Bonnie had swallowed back her tears as she had watched the excitement in her dad's eyes grow. Driving out of the city to a little town two hours away, a town with a silly name tucked into the middle of farm country, felt like they were driving off the edge of the known world to Bonnie, while her father had practically overflowed with happy exclamations about the fresh air and wide-open spaces. She had almost convinced herself it was a bad dream… until now.
The Jeep edged off the highway onto the exit ramp, her father tapping his fingers against the steering wheel and as they waited at the red light. Two cars, one a minivan, the other a truck, slowly passed through the intersection headed in opposite directions. Bonnie bit her lip, looking around the intersection.
"How much farther?"
"Mmm, to the house?" Her father answered, his voice vague. "Just a few miles from here. We'll drive by real quick."
Bonnie cocked her head and fixed her father with a level stare. He whistled softly, his eyes shifting once to meet hers before he shifted and focused on the red light.
"'We'll just drive by?'" Bonnie repeated. "What do you mean drive by? Aren't we going inside the house?” Her panic fled as her fear flamed into growing anger. Her voice rose. “The house you were so excited to find after raising me in an apartment for the last fifteen years?"
Her father chuckled nervously, then swallowed and looked over at her.
"I am excited about the new house, Bibi." He shrugged, giving Bonnie a half-smile. "But things are a little... complicated. We'll just be driving by today." He angled the Jeep to the left as the light turned green.
"Complicated?" Bonnie repeated.
He turned, giving her a broad smile with a look on his face that Bonnie recognized. It was his Big Surprise look and Bonnie felt her stomach drop as she remembered some of his other Big Surprises, like the time he brought home a Rubbermaid tote full of croaking bullfrogs he'd saved from being put under the scalpel in biology class. Once the lid came off, the frogs had hopped into all the corners of their apartment; it had taken Bonnie and Alma over three days to find all of them.
"Just a little complicated. Besides, I have a surprise for you!"
Her father turned the Jeep again and Bonnie saw the street sign at the corner flash by her window. They were on Main Street, headed toward the center of Castlewood. A few houses appeared, set back from the road; at the next red light, Bonnie saw the edge of a sidewalk begin on the other side of the intersection, the white concrete rolling toward the edge of the horizon.
"A surprise?" asked Bonnie. "What's going on, Papa?" The knot of fear sat like a rock in her belly as the Jeep came to a stop sign and her father sat, waiting for traffic to pass, the right turn signal blinking tick-tock-tick-tock.
As the Jeep slowly cruised down the street, Bonnie saw old trees lining the sidewalk, their leafy limbs swaying in the morning breeze. Deep lawns rolled back from the sidewalk, with stone and brick walkways that led to older houses, most of them smaller two-stories, all with wide front porches, elaborate trim, and a myriad of cheery paint colors. It looked like a street of gingerbread cottages.
Slowing to a stop, her father parked the Jeep in front of the fourth house on the right.
"There," he whispered, his hands resting on the steering wheel. Lifting a finger, he pointed gently across Bonnie to a little one-story red cottage with white trim, a blue door, and a broad front porch that wrapped around the left side of the house and disappeared. Next to the driveway, a group of battered kitchen cabinets stood in line, piled with rolls of discarded carpet.
"You weren't kidding. It's nowhere near ready for move in.”
"No, not yet," said her father. He sighed. “The contractor I hired to do the remodeling hasn’t been answering my calls, either.” He shook his head, his lips tightening in displeasure.
Bonnie peered at the house, a small spark of hope taking hold of her. Whipping her head around, she slid her sunglasses off and stared at her father, her eyes wide as a pulse of excitement thrummed in her spine.
"Since the house isn't ready, that means we have no place to live!" A wave of triumphant relief washed away her fear. "Which means we have to go back to the city!"
"Ahh, Bibi, where's your sense of adventure? Even if we wanted to go back, the apartment is sub-leased to a new tenant for the summer until Alma gets back."
The thrum of excitement evaporated and Bonnie felt deflated, barely hearing her father as he continued. "Now that we’re in town, I need to get a hold of the contractor and find out why the work is delayed. I’m sure he will have it ready for us to move in before the school year starts."
The words school year registered and Bonnie looked at her father, the hope she had felt just a few seconds ago gone, replaced with an all too familiar sense of worry.
"But Papa, it's only June. School doesn't start till the end of August. Where are we going to live until then?"
Her father smiled, his brown eyes crinkling behind his glasses.
"Aha! And now I finally get to share my surprise of the day!" He chuckled, then put the Jeep in drive, making a quick U-turn in the street before heading back out toward the highway.
Bonnie swallowed, her heart beating faster as she remembered how on the third day of the Great Frog Caper, she had found the last escaped bullfrog hiding under her pillow. Screaming, she had fled her tiny apartment bedroom, the frog croaking as it jumped from her bed.
Alarm bells bonged in Bonnie's head. I think I’d take a bucket of bullfrogs dumped in my lap to just go home to the city.
"Wh-what surprise?" Bonnie finally dared to ask, staring at her father as he began humming along to the radio again.
He turned and grinned, his eyes dancing with glee behind his glasses.
"We're going… to camp!"
Preorder Camp Castlewood (Release date April 30, 2023) on Amazon.