Lisa Doan is the author of The Berenson Schemes. The first book of the series – Jack the Castaway was released on April 1, 2014. She received a master’s degree in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Below you can read a sample story from her book, JACK THE CASTAWAY. Courtesy: Lisa Doan. Read her interview here.
In which Jack is unfortunately reunited with his parents
Jack’s parents had finally returned from the heart of the Amazon jungle. They stood at the front door, browned and emaciated.
“Jack,” his dad said, “we’re back. Not any richer, I’m afraid. And as you can see, the intestinal parasites were…a problem.”
His mom wrapped her bony arms around him. She felt like a skeleton.
“Just a shame about your Aunt Julia,” she said. “Getting run over by a bus sounds like something that might happen…not actually happen.”
“Worst luck,” his dad said, shaking his head.
Jack detached himself from mom-skeleton. “You missed the funeral. It was a month ago.”
“We set off the instant we read the news,” his dad said. “The letter was delayed because—”
“Because the post office was surrounded by crocodiles.”
“They floated in with a flash flood.”
“That’s the Amazon for you.”
Jack folded his arms. “You just made that up. Here’s what really happened. You got the first letter probably two and a half months ago. You thought, what a shame. Aunt Julia’s in a coma, but she’ll snap out of it.”
Jack’s mom stuck her foot out and examined the overgrown toenails poking out of her sandal. His dad looked over Jack’s head and said quietly, “Well, she was a tough old girl.”
“Then,” Jack said, “you got the letter from Bill that explained she didn’t snap out of it. She died. And that she had left something for you in her will.”
“No, no,” his dad mumbled.
“Never saw that one,” his mom said.
“The crocodiles must have ate that letter.”
“Then,” Jack continued, “you grabbed your backpacks and paddled down the river as fast as you could because you’re terrified of having a job, you still haven’t won the lottery like you’d planned, and panning for gold in the Amazon, like all your other schemes, was a complete waste of time.”
Jack had delivered some version of this lecture to his parents each time they had swung by Pennsylvania in between their get-rich-quick schemes. He kept hoping it would make an impression, but it never did.
“Ah, but the Amazon was not a waste of time,” his dad said. “We were able to firmly determine that panning for gold wasn’t for us. Though it seemed like such a sure thing when we first thought of it.”
“We even saw a school of piranha eat a cow,” his mom said in a hopeful voice. “It was our cow, so that part was a shame…”
Jack kept them standing in the doorway. He didn’t want to let them in. They’d just bring chaos into the house. Chaos and weird stories about piranhas and crocodiles. It would never occur to them to do anything normal. Like ask him about his grades or find out who his friends were. Aunt Julia had examined his report cards with a sharp eye. She had known all of his friends. But then, Aunt Julia had been a lot older than Jack’s mom. His aunt had always called his mom ‘the shocking surprise.’
Now Aunt Julia was gone. Jack knew Uncle Bill wouldn’t keep him. Bill was a nice guy, but he wasn’t a blood relation. Over the past month, Jack had mourned his aunt and dreaded the arrival of his parents. He might actually have to live with them if another relative couldn’t be dug up somewhere else.
“No worries, Jack,” his mom said. “We have arrived prepared. We’ll put on a proper memorial for Julia. We’ve brought a ritual mask thingy back from Brazil. It’s scary looking, but the man who sold it to us said it’s wonderfully spiritual. And your dad has whipped up a rousing eulogy.”
“Have I?” his dad asked.
Bill’s booming voice filled the front hall. “Thought I heard a car in the driveway. I wondered if you two were ever coming back.”
Jack spent the afternoon in his room, reading a book about poisonous frogs. It turned out that D. Fantasticus hopped around northern Peru and was prone to panic. Those poor Peruvians—an anxious frog with poison on its skin was a recipe for disaster.
Jack held the book up with one hand and fingered the Saint Anthony medal stuffed in his pocket. Aunt Julia had given it to him and told him that Saint Anthony could find anything. Jack prayed the saint would find him some long-lost relatives like Aunt Julia, people who had nine-to-five jobs and did no traveling whatsoever.
His parents were downstairs speaking with Bill. Jack couldn’t hear the whole conversation, just the loud parts.
“Brilliant!” his dad shouted.
“What about his education?” Bill yelled. And then, “That can’t be what Julia had in mind!”
Shortly thereafter, his mom burst into the room.
“Jack, incredible news,” she said, collapsing on the bed. “We’re off to the Caribbean to run snorkel trips. How’s that for an idea?”
Jack stared at his book. D. Fantasticus swam in front of his eyes. “Who’s we?” he whispered.
In which Jack is forced to live with his parents, as other relatives could not be dug up
Jack had vowed he would never travel with his parents. He had a severe case of ‘will to live’ that prevented him from risking his life in foreign lands. There was no end to the diseases, ferry sinkings, volcanic eruptions, train derailments, earthquakes, landslides, blizzards, plane crashes, animal attacks, and military coups that could kill a person.
Jack was surprised each time his parents made it back to Pennsylvania. It was a miracle they were still alive. They were more like cats than people. But Jack knew it was only a matter of time before they arrived at life number nine. Sooner or later they would get ambushed by a lion or swept away in a tsunami. Then that would be that.
So far, his mom and dad had:
– Panned for gold in the Amazon. (Which had not produced any gold, but had produced intestinal parasites.)
– Bought a van in Nairobi and took unsuspecting tourists on safari. (Which might have worked out, had his parents brought them all back again.)
– Attempted to export precious stones from India. (Which the U.S. Embassy had called “foolish” and the Indian police had called “smuggling.”)
– Leased an olive grove in Greece and started the Berenson Olive Oil Company. (Which had fallen apart when his parents couldn’t solve the whole ‘how do you get the oil out of the olive and into the bottle’ problem.)
– Taught English in Japan. (Which had led to being chased out of Tokyo by Japanese parents who thought haikus full of swear words were neither educational nor amusing.)
– Opened a fish-and-chip shop in Budapest. (Which had been shut down by the Hungarian health authorities for reasons apparently too grim to even talk about.)
More than once, an American ambassador had mentioned to a British ambassador that granting Richard and Claire Berenson U.S. citizenship had been a computer error. The country that had spawned them should take them back. The British liked to cite their “no returns policy.”
Jack rested his forehead on the cold plastic of the plane window and stared at the whitecaps dotting the blue Caribbean Sea. How had this happened to him?
His mom and dad clinked their Salva Vida beer bottles.
“Here’s to living in paradise,” his dad said.
“Cheers,” his mom said. She patted Jack’s arm. “We have heaps of plans. Shall we tell him, Richard?”
Dread crept up the back of Jack’s neck like a thousand baby spiders. Plans.Heaps of them. His parent’s plans had the same effect on Jack as telling him, “By the way, did you know the bubonic plague is in town? You should have those swellings on your neck checked out.” He had always figured that when his parents ran out of spare lives, their tombstones would read, They had plans.
“Tell him everything, Claire,” his dad said.
“Right,” his mom said. “First up, we’re going to bond.”
“Who is?” Jack asked.
“Us,” his mom said. “You and me, you and dad. It’s been ages since we saw you. You must have tons to tell us.”
Jack wasn’t sure what to say to that. He had made a serious and years-long effort not to know his parents too well. That way, when they died, it wouldn’t be any worse than hearing that the neighbor’s gerbil had got loose and disappeared into a heating duct. Hard to ignore the smell for a few days, but the tragedy would quickly pass. When Jack was asked about their untimely end at school, he could coolly say, “By all accounts, they never saw the elephant stampede coming.”
“Second, we’re going to make piles of money so we can buy you a pony,” his mom said.
“And once we get our business going,” she said, “we’ll sort out this home-schooling thingy.”
Great. In a week, Jack’s best friend Zack would start the sixth grade. Jack would start a thingy. Zack would be on the soccer team again. And Jack wouldn’t. Zack might even get to play this year. And Jack wouldn’t. Although Jack had to admit, he probably wouldn’t have played even if he’d been there.
And what about Diana?Beautiful, blond Diana, with the light brown freckles across her nose? Even on the day she’d sat next to Jack on the bus, he hadn’t had the nerve to talk to her. He had been waiting for the sudden growth spurt Aunt Julia had sworn would happen. Would Zack hang out with Diana now that Jack was out of the way? Jack was well aware that love was a battlefield. He had seen what had happened when Aaron Schusterman had moved to New Jersey. Two weeks later, Linda Carmichael was like, “Aaron who?”
He came back to the present as his mom said, “. . . As soon as we’ve got a boat.”
The plane circled over the long, narrow island. It landed with a thud on a thin runway parallel to the sea. When his parents first mentioned the Caribbean, Jack had been delusional enough to think they meant somewhere like the Caymans. A place that had movie theaters and malls. But they hadn’t meant that. They had meant “the undiscovered Caribbean.”
Jack had read about it on the Internet. Both English and Spanish were spoken. The island was inhabited by the descendants of pirates, native islanders, scuba divers, the occasional fugitive, and people who “backpacked.”
Jack didn’t know anybody that backpacked. Except his parents. But they were British, so it didn’t really count. For the millionth time, Jack wished his parents had been born American, like he had been, and that they would take him somewhere normal, like the Grand Canyon. Of course, he reminded himself, if they went to the Grand Canyon, his mom and dad would probably bungee jump into it.
His parents got through immigration after swearing they had just come for a two week holiday. Jack mentally checked off crime number one.
They dragged their bags to customs and, with the aid of a forty dollar tip, his dad explained why three people would need twenty-five sets of snorkel gear. Crime number two, and they weren’t even out of the airport.
The small, un-air-conditioned taxi wound up and down hills and screeched around the tight turns of the island’s narrow roads. They sped past the ramshackle town of Manda, where houses stacked on steep slopes appeared to hang by their wooden fingernails. Trees as big as oaks, covered with shiny green leaves, stretched thick branches overhead.
They were headed to a village called Lee Beach.
The sky darkened as the sun dipped below the trees. The thick, humid air smelled of wood smoke.
The paved road turned to sand at a T-shaped crossing. The taxi faced the beach, idling next to a stone building with a sign that said Blue Bay Convenience Store. The driver said, “Which way? Where you going?”
“We don’t know, actually,” Jack’s mom said. “We need a place to stay.”
Jack pressed his lips together. They hadn’t even made reservations. So this was what his parents did when they went to a foreign country. Just arrived.
The driver asked what kind of hotel they were looking for. Jack’s mom told him that their top priorities were cheap price and an indoor loo. Then she explained that a loo was a toilet. The driver muttered, “Gringos,” and swung the car to the left.
The taxi bounced down the rutted road. A whitewashed church, topped by a brass bell, sat at water’s edge. Outdoor restaurants on either side of the lane were painted with pictures of palm trees, fish, and coral reefs. Workers lit tabletop candles, and a few sunburned tourists wandered along the beach.
The sun dropped fast to the horizon. The pale blue sea deepened to a turquoise splashed with patches of dark purple. Jack wondered what the dark patches were. Bull sharks, probably.
The taxi pulled into a dusty courtyard, laid before a white stone building with a red tile roof. A blue-and-green sign filled with flying parrots read The Deep Water Inn.
The manager of the hotel agreed to take one hundred and fifty Bacsira a night for a room that would fit all three of them. Jack did a quick calculation in his head. That was only fifteen dollars. They hauled their luggage up to the second floor.
Jack was afraid to look at the place. He didn’t see how it was possible to even rent a tent to sleep in for only fifteen dollars. He braced himself and went in.