“WILLA, PLEASE STOP KICKING MY Seat.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to,” Willa Dunlap said to her mom as she stretched to see out the window. She really didn’t mean to kick the seat. But they had been in the car FOREVER, driving all the way from Chicago to Chincoteague Island in Virginia.
Now Willa was about to miss out on the very best part. She turned and looked out the back. All she wanted was a peek at one of the Chincoteague ponies, running on the sandy beach. She thought if she saw one, it would be a sign that moving to the island and leaving her friends behind was worth it.
Willa tried to see past the houses and across the bay but couldn’t spot a thing. It was too foggy.
“We’re almost home,” Mom announced. “It’s coming up on the left.”
Willa rolled her eyes, hoping to get the attention of her little brother, Ben. He didn’t like it when Mom called the new house “home,” either. They didn’t live there yet. And, as far as Willa knew, no one had lived in the old gray house in a long time. Willa thought there was a good reason. It didn’t look very “homey” in pictures.
She glanced around at the houses along the narrow street. They looked like they had been built a long time ago, but they did have lots of new flowers in the front yards. The Dunlaps had never had a yard, just a balcony in their last apartment in Chicago.
One of the houses on the street had a giant tree with a rope swing hanging from a high branch. Willa had only swung on the chain-link swings in the city parks with her best friend, Kate.
Ben had hardly said one word the whole ride. But that wasn’t unusual for him. He had read through his comic collection and then napped. Willa couldn’t nap. She couldn’t even read one of the dozen books in her backpack. She was too anxious.
Their dad had been quiet too. He had been quiet a lot since they had decided to move. The only thing he had talked about was the new kitchen for the new restaurant they were going to open. Their parents were going to run a bed-and-breakfast, and their dad would be the head chef.
The whole family had agreed that they would call the restaurant the Family Farm. It sounded cozy and friendly. Dad liked how it hinted that they were going to try to grow some of their own food. Willa and Ben liked how it sounded as if there would be animals there. But neither Mom nor Dad had made any promises about pets.
“Yay! We’re here! Our new home!” Mom made another happy announcement. Willa knew that, in many ways, this already was home for her mom. She had grown up on Chincoteague Island. She had grown up hearing the stories of the famous ponies of nearby Assateague Island.
Once the car was parked, Mom swung her door open, stepped out, and breathed in the seaside air. Willa could already smell the salt in the car. She remembered it from trips to her grandparents’ house. The smell of the ocean was everywhere.
Willa jumped out of the backseat and joined her mother. She leaned back as she looked up to the roof and back down again. There was a lot of house to see: three stories; a big covered porch that wrapped around the front to the side; and lots of windows set on a sloping roof.
“You don’t think it’s haunted, do you?”
Willa flinched. She hadn’t heard Ben come up behind her. It didn’t help that he almost always spoke in a whisper.
“No,” she answered, but the house was large enough for a whole family of ghosts, plus grandparent ghosts too. “It’s just old. Mom and Dad will fix it up. You’ll see.”
Willa skipped to the end of the driveway and back, trying to loosen up her knees after the drive. Her parents stood in front of the house. Her dad had his hand resting on her mom’s shoulder, and her mom had her arm around his waist.
“A cat!” Ben yelped.
He pointed and jogged up onto the porch. Wood planks creaked as he ran. The cat’s fur was a mess of colors—brown, white, orange, and black—but its eyes were a clear, bright green.
Willa glanced at Dad and held her breath. How long until he tried to stop Ben? The cat’s fur wasn’t scraggly, and the animal wasn’t terribly skinny, but it sure looked like a stray.
“Hey now, Ben,” Dad called. “We don’t know that cat.”
Willa laughed. Of course they didn’t know the cat.
“Don’t get any ideas, buddy,” Dad continued. “We have a lot of work to do around this place. We cannot take on the responsibility of a pet right now.”
What was the point of moving to a gigantic house if you couldn’t have pets? Willa rushed to join Ben. She loved cats. She loved most animals. She understood what her dad was saying, but she hoped he would change his mind.
Just as Willa reached her brother, the cat jumped to the porch railing and began to lick her paw.
“I was so close,” Ben said, his bangs hanging in his hazel eyes.
“Come on, you two,” Dad called again. “We have to unpack this car. We don’t have time to chase some stray cat.”
“It isn’t just any cat,” a voice announced. “It’s New Cat.”
A barefoot kid in cutoff jeans stood in their driveway, holding a platter that was covered in shiny, silver foil. He didn’t look much older than Ben.
“New Cat belongs here. She always has,” the boy explained.
“Hi,” Mom said. “I’m Amelia Dunlap. This is my family, Ben, Willa, and my husband, Eric.”
“Hi,” the boy answered, striding toward her. “I’m Chipper. My mom says, ‘Welcome to Chincoteague.’ She told me to give you these. You’re lucky.” He held out the platter. As soon as Willa and Ben’s mom took it, the boy turned and ran.