Frankie and Walter aren’t really running away. Just like the kids in their favorite book, they are running to somewhere. Specifically, a massive furniture store. They’ve been obsessed with the Ikea catalog for years. So they make a plan, pack their backpacks, give their parents the sleepover switcheroo . . . and they’re in.
One night all on their own, with no grown-ups or little brothers.
One night of couch jumping, pillow forts, and unlimited soda refills.
One night of surprises and twinkle lights and secrets they have been keeping—and waiting to share.
One unforgettable night in Ikea.
A tribute to the beloved classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler! Only, instead of running away to the Metropolitan Museum, these kids are running away to somewhere a little more modern...
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The Parents Make a Plan
The funny thing is this: people think that dorky geeks who read all the time are the kinds of kids who don’t get into trouble. But they’re wrong. We do. And I’m telling you this from experience. I’m telling you this because there was a moment when Walter and I were scrunched into a pair of hanging chairs in the Ikea showroom at four in the morning, thrilled and terrified, hiding from the security guard with her walkie-talkie, and I thought, We wouldn’t even be here if we hadn’t read the books we’ve read.
Which was true.
But let me back up, because the story doesn’t start there. It starts with my family and Walter’s family sitting at our dinner table with the pizza plates pushed aside, trying to figure out if it was worth schlepping to Ikea for the various things we were all wanting. Walter is my oldest friend, and our parents are best friends--or whatever the grown-up equivalent is--and we always say that if Walter’s cat, Puddle, met my cat, Mr. Pockets, they’d be best friends too. When we were little, we actually used to draw pictures of them getting married, the two cats in their tuxedos because they’re both boys, me and Walter holding the little rings.
“Maybe you and I can just make a run down there so everyone doesn’t have to go,” my mom was saying to Walter’s mom. “It seems silly to drag two carloads of people for some picture frames and a slipcover.”
“And the shoe bench,” Walter’s mom said.
“And the patio table,” my dad said.
“And the hangers and file boxes and that thing we wanted for the bathroom, for the towels to go somewhere,” Walter’s mom said.
“And the things I want, which are lots of things, lots of different things that I don’t even know what they are because I don’t even know what there is,” Walter’s little brother, Zeke, said. He’s three, in case that wasn’t obvious.
But wait, I’m sorry, because maybe you don’t even know what Ikea is! Poor you! Let me tell you. Ikea is this ginormous chain of Swedish furniture stores. Which sounds totally unfun, I know, but somehow everything they sell is crazily nice and you want it: all this furniture that looks really clean and modern, and it’s made of pretty wood that’s perfectly light or perfectly dark, or it’s painted some awesome color so you feel like if you had it in your house, you’d be living inside a TV show about people with really nice houses, if you know what I mean. But they sell all this other stuff too--dishes and posters and lamps and toys--and everything is cool and appealing, and you want it, even though it would be hard to say why. But it’s kind of cheap enough that sometimes you can convince grown-ups to buy you something. We’ve only been to the actual store a couple of times, though. Mostly, Walter and I just lie around with the Ikea catalog at his house or mine, wanting things.
Now Walter said, “No offense, but it would be dumb for you to go yourselves because you don’t even like Ikea! And Frankie and I love it.” Frankie is short for Francesca, which nobody has ever called me except, apparently, my Italian grandmother. But she died when I was a baby, and since then it’s been Frankie always and only.
“That’s a good point,” my mom said. My mom, who actually looked into ordering Ikea stuff online instead of going there! (Luckily, it’s weirdly hard and expensive to have it delivered.) Which makes her very different from me and Walter, because we would seriously go to Ikea every single day. Instead, we look at the catalog. Like, all the time.
Sometimes my mom squashes onto the old gray couch to peer at the Ikea stuff with us. “What are you two drooling over now?” And we point to this or that living room, everything all clean and kind of fancily plain, with no colored pencils or pencil sharpeners or pencil shavings scattered across the old coffee table along with the Spirograph pieces. No cloud-shaped stain on the rug where Mr. Pockets had horked up a massive hair ball full of colored-pencil shavings. No shredded couch armrests where Mr. Pockets has been sharpening his claws his entire life. No perfectly unused scratching post next to the torn-up couch.
“I have two solutions,” Mom said one time. “And they’re both free! Give away all your stuff, and get rid of Mr. Pockets. Then it’ll be just like we’re living in a showroom!”
I knew she wasn’t even half-serious. She likes Spirograph, for one thing, and for another, Mr. Pockets is the love of her life. That’s what she always says when he’s lying on her chest, purring into her face. “Who’s the love of my life? Is it you? Is it you? Yes. It’s you.” And my father always clears his throat really loudly--“A-a-a-hem”--which makes her laugh.
Anyway, at the dinner table, Walter and I started making our case for a big two-family Ikea trip. Walter--and I’m not just saying this because he’s my best friend (even though I would just say it because he’s my best friend)--has one of those dimply, long-eyelashed faces that makes everybody pretty much need to let him do whatever it is he’s hoping to do. Including me. I mean, I can hardly ever say no to him, but that’s fine, because he hardly ever asks for anything I would want to say no to.
“It’s almost my birthday,” Walter was saying now (dimple, dimple), “and maybe we could just do my dinner celebration there with these guys. That’s my first choice, and it would be totally cheap and easy.”
“As long as it’s cheap and easy,” his mom, Alice, teased. “We don’t really want to go all out on your birthday, Walter. A fast, inexpensive Swedish meal at the Ikea food court. That’s about as far as I’m willing to stretch.”
Walter laughed. His mom once hand-made a papier-mâché piñata in the shape of Harry Potter’s wizard hat and filled it with foil-wrapped chocolate wands. Going all out on his birthday was kind of a family tradition.
My mom put out a plate of the pink candy-cane fudge she was trying to get perfect. She’s a food writer for a magazine, and we spend our lives eating delicious things in the wrong season because they need to be figured out so far ahead of time. “Recipe testing?” Alice asked, taking a piece, and my mom nodded.
Alice took a bite.
“Grainy?” my mom asked.
“A little grainy,” my dad said, biting into his piece. “You can feel the sugar crystals on your tongue. But not in a bad way. I think that’s just what fudge is like.”
Walter’s mom shrugged and reached for another piece. “It tastes perfect to me.”
“It tastes fudgy to me,” Zeke said seriously, the fudge already spreading across his face like a pink beard. Then he added, like my dad, “Not in a bad way.”
“Guys,” Walter said. “Guys. Seriously. Ikea.” He was trying to refocus the grown-ups, who sometimes have super-short attention spans. “Plus, then I can use Grandma’s birthday money to get that cool spinning desk chair. Which I really, really want. Please?”
And the parents did their special Parental Silent Communication--raised eyebrows, eye contact around the table, shrugging--and just like that, it was decided.
“Saturday?” my dad said. “It’ll be a madhouse, but that’s probably the only day we’re all free.”
“Okay to meet after lunch?” my mom asked. “I’m going to have to finish recipe notes and drop off samples in the morning.”
“Perfect,” Alice said, taking Zeke’s hand and holding it gently in her two hands to, I think, stop him from taking a third piece of fudge. “We can shop a little, get some dinner, finish up before they close.” She asked me if I wanted to come home with them after Ikea to spend the night, which I did.
“Or Walter could spend the night here,” my mom said, “so the kids can help me recipe-test the eggnog waffles I’m supposed to be inventing.”
“Either way,” Walter and I said at exactly the same time, and Alice said, “We can figure it out later.”
Which was definitely the grown-ups’ first mistake.
We Make a Plan Too (At Least Sort Of)
Ikea had been written on our calendar, by me, in big blue letters. Saturday, May 17. It was now Thursday the fifteenth, and Walter was over after school. We were lying in my family’s red-and-pink-striped hammock, under the big maple tree, and we were eating popcorn--really buttery and salty, the way we both like it--looking at the Ikea catalog and playing the “picking game.” You probably play it too, even if you call it something else: it’s the game where you look at a catalog with someone, and you each pick the thing you most want from every page. I like playing with Walter because I can almost always guess what he’s going to pick, but sometimes he surprises me.
“DUKTIG tea set,” I said--it’s a real china tea set for kids, in pretty shades of blue and pink and yellow--and Walter said, “Me too.” Ikea writes all the Swedish names in block caps, which is how I picture them, even when we’re just saying them out loud.
“ARVIKA swivel chair,” Walter said. I squinted at the page--the tall black chair that looked a little like you’d be buckled into it at a fair ride--and said, “Same.”
“GULÖRT rug,” I said, and pointed to the red-and-white rug with the cute owl on it. “I mean, duh.”
“Not me,” Walter said. “I’m STOCKHOLM sofa.” He pointed to a green velvet couch.
“Seriously? The green couch?” Occasionally, Walter is a mystery to me.
“I really want a new couch,” Walter said. “Zeke totally trashed ours--it’s covered in something sticky that I don’t really want to think about. Plus, it’s not even comfortable anymore.” He stuffed a handful of popcorn in his mouth. “Are the parents going to let us sit on all the couches when we go, or are they going to rush us, do you think?”
This was a good question. Walter and I prefer not to be rushed at Ikea. Every showroom is like a perfect fake room pulled out of a perfect fake house. Like a life-size diorama of the idea of living somewhere stylish. So there’s the part where it’s all the couches or coffee tables or whatever in one place, but there’s also that same couch in a little movie-set kind of area, with a carpet, and a coffee table that has some books and magazines on it, maybe glasses on a tray, a plant, even.
Have you ever watched any of those TV shows about people living in tiny houses? I love those shows--all the people playing guitars in their perfect tiny lofts, sitting with glasses of iced tea in their perfect tiny living rooms, life miniaturized down to a manageable level. It’s like my little-kid fantasy of living in my own dollhouse, using all the little accessories, the house aglow with twinkle lights, and none of the clutter of real life. Ikea felt like that to me too. Like living in a life-size dollhouse. But a really modern one, with dark wood floors and tiled bathrooms.
The one time Walter and I actually got to go to Ikea together, it was epic. We planned for it, made lists, and sat around with the catalog for weeks beforehand, daydreaming about . . . I’m not sure what. Having nicer beds, maybe, or bedrooms. Or nicer houses. Or something else. Nicer lives? I’m really not sure--except that it seems to have involved the word nicer. Walter and I sat in all the little rooms and pretended we lived there. We pretended to watch the TV, pretended to channel-surf with the remote control, pretended to brush our teeth in the little demo bathroom, pretended to sit at the breakfast bar and wait for pancakes. We liked to spin in all the desk chairs, and lie on all the beds, and click on all the lamps.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this is not how our parents like to shop. Someone kept circling back to get us. Usually my mom. The same mom who once, after we’d spent hours at Ikea picking out stuff and finding it in the warehouse and standing in line with our giant shopping cart crammed with all the boxes that contained all the parts of the sofa we were buying and also some holiday napkins and a one-dollar set of colored markers and every other thing we’d managed to load in, sighed and said, “Let’s just forget it. I mean, do we even really need any of this?” And then she said, a little louder, pushing her hair out of her face in a kind of insane way, “Let’s just go. Okay? Let’s go!” And my dad recommended that she take a deep breath and go get a cup of coffee and wait in the car. Which is what she did, and she was sitting there, laughing at herself, when we came out with all the stuff.
Anyway, were the parents going to rush us? Yes. They were going to rush us. “I wish we could spend the night there,” Walter said. He’d closed his eyes in the sunshine and was dreamily scratching at his Lego robotics T-shirt from the year that our team went to the state championship. “Wouldn’t it be great? Like in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.”
I knew exactly what he was talking about, because that book was one of our favorites. It’s the one where a brother and sister spend a bunch of nights in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They sleep in the antique beds and fish coins out of the fountains to buy food, and it’s so awesome. It’s not like one of those spend-the-night-at-the-aquarium events, where you’re there with your class and a sleeping bag. I mean, I’m sure I’d love that too, but there’s something so much cooler about it being secret and even kind of wrong, about nobody knowing where you are. In the book, the kids end up staying there for, like, a week, and they solve a mystery and catch a criminal and rescue a Michelangelo sculpture and do all this other stuff. But honestly? The part that always interested me most was just the actual living in the museum--the day-to-day descriptions of what they ate and where they slept and the fun things they thought to do, alone in a giant museum with no grown-ups.
“We could, you know,” I said.