Olivia and her mom have just moved in with her grandmother, and Olivia has exactly zero friends at her new school. But after a strange message on the bathroom wall of a café catches her eye, Olivia decides that Birmingham, Alabama, may be a little more interesting than it seems. So begins a search for answers that takes her all over the city. Luckily, her mission isn’t solitary for long, thanks to her newfound friendship with Amelia, a girl just odd enough to be intriguing.
What the girls discover isn’t the earth-shattering revelation they were hoping for, but it may be just as compelling. After all, sometimes the journey really is more important than the destination. Especially when it leads you back home.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
If I were to tell you that three years ago I went searching for a secret, solved a mystery, and changed my life, you might have a few pictures pop into your head. You might imagine me making my way through a dark cave with the glitter of something shiny far ahead. You might picture me fitting a key into an old lock or creeping through the halls of a creaky house with flickering candles.
My guess is that you would not picture me in a bathroom.
I mean, not that you should start picturing me in a bathroom.
The bathroom—which you should not be picturing me in—is on 20th Street North in Birmingham, Alabama, at a pizza place called Trattoria Centrale. I went there for the scones, which were delicious, but I also liked to take my time in the bathroom. It was unisex, with one room and one toilet, and the white walls were covered in writing—all different colors and all different handwriting. There were hundreds or thousands of messages from people I’d never met. Or maybe I had. Maybe I’d sat next to the girl in class who wrote “Anything you can do I can do better,” or maybe I’d smiled at the guy who wrote “The sky is purple” as I passed him on the sidewalk.
I’d never know—that was the beauty of it. The same sentence that would be boring or silly coming out of someone’s mouth was somehow fascinating when it was left behind on a wall.
I had plenty of time to spend reading walls in those days. I’d been in Birmingham less than a month, and once school was out in the afternoon, I didn’t have much to do. I didn’t know anyone, Gram was at work, and Mom wasn’t allowed to leave her bed yet. So I killed time at Trattoria. I had a routine: I placed my order, then I went to the bathroom, and after I washed my hands, I took a few minutes to read the walls. I always found new comments I hadn’t noticed before.
This particular day, as I wadded up my paper towel and tossed it in the garbage, I studied the wall to the right of the doorway. There was a very nice drawing of a red and black rose, a cartoon drawing of a bunny with fangs, and the usual hodgepodge of random thoughts:
Leaving Birmingham for Boise tonight!
I love Audrey Alice Skrumpke, and I am going to marry her in August.
You are beautiful.
HOT GIRLS READ.
Then, in purple writing, another message caught my eye:
We are Plantagenet. We are chosen.
Well, that seemed odd. The phrasing was odd, I mean. Not “We are Plantagenets,” like it was a family name, like “We are Smiths” or “We are Joneses.” You could tell people thought it was cool to write odd things on the wall—one of my favorites, “Marigolds need leashes,” didn’t exactly make a lot of sense. But this one seemed weirder than usual. I shrugged and tugged at the door handle.
My cherry rosemary scone was ready, and I picked it up from the counter along with my ice water. The pigtailed lady at the cash register smiled at me. She took my order most days. I probably talked to her more than anyone else in Birmingham other than Mom and Gram.
“Homework?” she asked.
I smiled, but when I tried to answer her, the words wouldn’t come out. That was a new problem since I moved here—when people talked to me, sometimes I couldn’t talk back. I froze. My mind went blank. It was really inconvenient.
It took a few seconds, but finally I came up with a response.
“Not much,” I said. “A few note cards for English.”
I was determined to call them note cards. My teacher always called them “conversation cards.”
“Tomorrow’s chocolate orange,” the cashier said, nodding at the nearly empty scone basket. “Your favorite.”
If I were a touchy-feely sort of person, I might have felt a little emotional that she knew my favorite scone. That in the middle of this city where half the time my teachers didn’t seem to remember my name and where even my grandmother couldn’t remember that I don’t like butter on my toast, this friendly woman with jet-black nails had noticed what I liked to eat. I might have actually felt my eyes tear up, if I was prone to that sort of thing. But probably I was allergic to pollen.
I settled into a back table and pinched off bites one at a time, chewing slowly to make the scone last longer. If I’d been back home in Charleston, I would have been in one of my favorite bakeries ordering a key lime doughnut or a pumpkin scone and a large vanilla latte. (Mom never had any problem with me drinking coffee. She’s always believed coffee is good for the brain.) If it was a bad day and I needed extra comforting, I might have gotten two doughnuts.
Mom believed in enjoying your snacks. But in Birmingham, Gram gave me two dollars a day for snacks and told me to learn to budget. She said Mom and I needed to stop spending money on unnecessary things. So I’d learned to stick to one scone and just get a cup of water.
Eventually I finished up my homework and decided it was probably time to walk home. Gram usually got home a little after five, and she worried if she had to wait too long before I showed up.
“You don’t have to rush off,” said the lady at the counter. “You’re nice company.”
Again, my brain was on a five-second delay, which happened even with small talk. Especially with small talk. It was like shyness was a disease, and I’d caught it as soon as I set foot in this city.
“Thanks,” I managed finally, when I was already half out the door. “My grandma will worry if I don’t get home soon.”
Worry drifted around Gram’s place those days like nasty-smelling air freshener. Other than that, it was the kind of place where most people would be thrilled to live, even though it wasn’t where you would expect to find a little old white-haired grandmother. Gram didn’t live in a tidy white house with a big porch and lots of quilts lying around. She lived in a condo downtown, which she’d bought back when she said she wouldn’t even take the dog for a walk after dark, and she’d gotten a really good deal on it. You could see all the city lights from her balcony. She didn’t have a single inch of carpet—everything was all smooth, shiny hardwood floors and stainless-steel appliances and black stone counters. (“Granite counters,” Gram corrected me when I first mentioned them.) Gram loved a nice kitchen.
When I walked through the front door, Gram stood by the gleaming counters chopping lettuce. She still wore her light blue uniform from the hospital where she’d worked forever.
“Any news?” she asked, kissing me on the cheek. “Any tests today? New assignments?”
“Just normal busy work,” I said. “I finished everything already.”
“Good girl. Your mother’s awake.”
“She have an okay day?” I asked.
“She’s just a little groggy,” she said.
“I’ll go say hello.”
That’s about as long as any of my conversations lasted with Gram. Mom said we were still getting used to each other.
The door was open to Mom’s room, and I stepped in quietly, just in case she was asleep. Her room had been the guest room until we showed up a few days before Mom’s surgery was scheduled. My room used to be Gram’s “junk room” and now had my twin bed crammed in with an ironing board, a sewing machine, and an old treadmill.
Anyway, Mom’s room was what Gram called “calming,” which meant it had no color to it at all—just whites and browns and beiges. The walls were beige and the comforter was beige and Mom’s face was beige. No makeup, even though this was the woman who always carried at least a dozen lipsticks in her purse. When I was little she used to let me pick out her eye shadow for the day from a tray of at least fifty colored circles, and even if I picked electric blue that looked like crushed-up Smurfs, she would still wear it.
No color to her now. Just pale skin and tired eyes.
Her eyes were open, and she smiled at me.
“Hey, Mario,” she said.
I should mention that my name is not Mario. It’s Olivia. But when I was a baby, I was a super-fast crawler, like leave-skid-marks-under-my-knees kind of fast. Apparently Mario Andretti was a race-car driver who was also very fast. Mom’s called me that for as long as I can remember.
I sat on the edge of the bed, my hip barely touching her arm. “How you feeling?”
“Awesome,” she said, half smiling. “But please don’t make me talk about how I feel. Or how my day was. Very dull. Tell me something interesting. Tell me, um, one thing you learned in school today.”
“Louise Cormack is offering kissing lessons in the girls’ bathroom after music class tomorrow.”
She raised an eyebrow. “That’s not exactly what I meant. And stay away from Louise Cormack.”
I grinned. I knew she didn’t want to know about Louise Cormack. Mom and I always loved trivia. The Complete and Astonishing Book of World Record Holders, Mysteries of the Strange and Unexplained, Weird and Interesting Facts—those were my favorite three books. And even for the weirdest trivia questions, Mom’s answers were usually amazingly close to right.
“Okay,” I said, and I thought about a word problem our math teacher gave us. “How much television does the average American teenager watch in a week?”
“Eighteen hours,” she said without even pausing. “Maybe twenty.”
“Twenty,” I said. “How do you know?”
“I have a very impressive brain.”
I felt my shoulders relax more than they had all day. This was normal. This was the way things had always been, me sitting next to Mom, shaking my head at her talent for random and pointless facts.
Mom ran a hand through her hair, which I suspected hadn’t been brushed all day. “Gram giving you any grief?” she asked.
“Nah. She just wants to know if I got any grades back on tests.”
“Make her proud,” she said, half smiling again. “Somebody should.”
I didn’t return her smile because I thought I knew what she meant, even though we’d never talked about it. I got the feeling that maybe Gram was disappointed in Mom. Mom never finished college, even though Gram had worked and worked (“never a holiday, never a day off” she’d say) so that Mom would be the first person in the family to graduate. Mom says college wasn’t her thing. The whole time I’ve been alive, she’s worked at a zillion different jobs, mostly through an agency that places her as a part-time secretary. The thing is that when you work part time, you don’t get benefits. That means you don’t have insurance to pay for doctor bills.
Anyway, insurance and doctors and hospital bills are why we wound up moving here.
Mom hooked one finger through a piece of my hair, twirling it to get my attention.
“You miss home?” she asked, like she was reading my mind.
“I’m okay,” I said.
“I know you’re okay,” she said. “But I also know you miss it. It’s okay to say that you miss it. I miss it.”
I didn’t want to say anything about home. If I said I missed it, if I tried just those three words, all sorts of other words might come tumbling out. It was easier to say nothing.
She breathed in and out, in and out, and I just listened to her. The sound was comforting.
“Did you know,” I said, “that puppies are born deaf and blind?”
She just patted my hand and closed her eyes.
“I’m sorry we had to leave, Mario,” she said.
When I walked back to the den, Gram was reading the newspaper, and she looked up when I plopped down on the sofa. She pointed to a story on the front page—there’d been a man found unconscious on the sidewalk just a few blocks from the condo. He’d been hit over the head. When the police came, they realized he was wanted for armed robbery.
“It’s dangerous for you to walk around by yourself out there,” Gram said. “You spend too much time alone.”
“Gram,” I whined. “I’m walking around in the middle of the day. On crowded streets. It’s totally safe.”
“Still,” she said. “By the way, one of the ladies I work with has a daughter in your grade. Her name is Amelia Glasgow. Do you know her?”
“No,” I said.
“She’s in a different homeroom from you. But I thought I could set up a playdate for the two of you.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for The Hidden Summer:
"A serene, thoughtful mix of family difficulties and summer magic." - The Horn Book
"The girls are sympathetic, credible characters, and readers will enjoy their successful execution of a common childhood fantasy." - Publishers Weekly
"Phillips’ prose is both fluid and plainspoken, evocative in a way easily accessible to preteen readers." - The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"Readers will be gratified that Nell’s resolve and courage in ultimately standing up for herself result in a hopeful conclusion." - School Library Journal