A Strange Letter
Marly heard the doorbell ring, but she didn’t budge from the couch. Her best friend, Aubrey, had moved to Chicago at the beginning of the summer, so Marly was pretty sure that whoever was at the door wasn’t here to see her. And she didn’t want to pause the book she was listening to. Not when she was so close to finding out the truth about Sam Westing.
“Can you get that, honey?” Mom called from the kitchen island.
Marly’s mom was baking bread for the food pantry. She always did that on the third Saturday of the month. Sometimes Marly helped, but she didn’t feel like helping today.
She didn’t feel like answering the door, either. She turned up the volume on her audiobook and pretended she couldn’t hear her mom.
The doorbell rang again.
“Please, Marly. My hands are covered in dough.” Mom held up her hands.
Marly sighed. Dad was out grocery shopping. Nick and Noah were at the pool. So she paused her book and dragged herself to the door.
“It’s probably Ellen.” Mom walked behind Marly, kneading a ball of dough between her hands. “She said she was going to drop off some work for me today.” Marly’s mom was an accountant and Ellen was her boss.
Marly peered out the narrow window beside the door and saw a curly--haired man standing on the porch. He wore a blue shirt and khaki pants, and he held a white envelope in his hands.
“It’s not Ellen,” Marly told her mom.
“No? Then who is it?” Mom went to the window.
Marly shrugged and opened the door. The man on the porch did a double--take when he saw her, then quickly turned his attention to Mom. “Marly Deaver?” he asked.
“No, this is Marly.” Mom tilted her head.
“Oh.” The man blinked in surprise. “Well, this envelope is for her,” he said, as though Marly wasn’t standing right there. Marly was used to that. Grown--ups didn’t like to make eye contact with kids who wore eye patches.
Mom didn’t have a free hand to take the envelope, so the man thrust it toward Marly. She grabbed it, and the man hurried away.
“What is this?” Marly asked, turning the envelope over. There was no return address or stamp. Just her name typed in all capital letters: MARLENA MARIE DEAVER.
“Excuse me?” Mom called to the man. “What’s this about?”
He didn’t answer. Without even looking back, the man got into the red car he’d left running in the street and drove away.
Marly tore open the envelope and pulled out a single, typed sheet of paper. It looked like the sort of letter you’d send to a grown--up, not an almost nine--year--old. Marly read the letter out loud while her mom looked over her shoulder:
Dear Ms. Deaver,
Your presence is requested at the office of Ms. Stella Lovelace, 120 Downtown Plaza, 10:00 a.m. on Monday, July 24, for the reading of Mr. Harry Summerling’s will. Please let me know if you cannot attend.
“Huh,” Mom said. “I didn’t know Mr. Summerling passed away.”
“What?” Marly said, shocked. “Passed away” was what grown--ups said when they meant “died.” “How do you know he . . . passed away?” Mr. Summerling was their next--door neighbor. He was old, but not that old.
Everyone in Sandford knew Mr. Summerling because he walked around town with a metal detector. He was always on the hunt for buried treasure. He was also the janitor at the library, but last year he quit his job so he could spend even more time treasure hunting. No one knew whether he ever found any. If you asked him about it, he would gaze thoughtfully into the distance and say something like “Not all treasure is silver and gold.”
“If an attorney is reading his will, he must’ve passed away,” Mom said. “That’s too bad. He was a nice man. Quirky, but nice.”
“Yeah,” Marly said. She didn’t know what else to say. No one she knew had ever died before.
She glanced over at the house next door. She couldn’t see much of it because of the tall hedge that seperated the two yards. A faded yellow tower stood out above the greenery. The tower looked quiet without Mr. Summerling. Maybe even a little sad.
“If this Ms. Lovelace wants you to be there when she reads Mr. Summerling’s will, he must’ve left you something,” Mom said.
“Me?” Marly perked up. “What would he leave me?”
“That’s a good question,” Mom said.
“I don’t get it,” Nick said at dinner. “Why would Mr. Summerling leave something in his will for Marly, but not the rest of us?”
“Yeah,” Noah said, passing the pasta to Dad. “That’s hardly fair.”
Nick and Noah were twins, but you couldn’t tell by looking at them. Nick had brown hair like Mom and Noah had blonde hair like Marly and Dad. The twins were four years older than Marly and going into eighth grade.
“He must’ve liked me better than he liked you,” Marly said with a shrug. It wasn’t often she got something that her brothers didn’t.
But inside, she couldn’t stop wondering what Mr. Summerling had left her. Was it money? Was it buried treasure? And why in the world would he leave her anything at all?
Sure, he was nice. He bought candy and wrapping paper from her when she sold it for school. Sometimes he paid her to sweep his front walk. Once he even gave her one of his old metal detectors when he cleaned out his garage. But he was next--door--neighbor nice, not give--you--something--when--I--die nice.
“Where’s your patch?” Mom interrupted Marly’s thoughts.
“It was hot, so I took it off.”
“Go put it back on, please,” Dad said.
“You need to wear it, honey,” Mom added. “At least until you see the eye doctor next month.”
Marly groaned. There was no point in arguing, so she got up and dragged herself to her room. She was so tired of patching. So tired! Most kids who patched only had to do it for a few months in kindergarten and then they were done. Marly had been patching off and on since she was three years old. And unlike other kids, she had to wear her patch all day. It wouldn’t be so bad if the patch covered her bad eye. But the whole point of wearing it was to train her bad eye to work like her good eye, which meant covering her good eye.
There were two patches on her dresser. She had worn the smiley--face one earlier in the day, so Marly grabbed the pink flower one instead. Carefully, she threaded it onto the temple of her glasses until it covered her right lens. Then she put her glasses on and everything across the room went blurry.
“Does Marly have to share whatever Mr. Summerling left her with the whole family?” Noah asked their parents when Marly returned to the table.
Mom smiled. “Whatever it is, I can’t imagine it’s all that valuable.”
“It could be,” Marly spoke up.
“Mr. Summerling was always searching for treasure.” Nick stood up and helped himself to another slice of garlic bread. “What if he found some?”
“Yeah, maybe he’s got a secret vault at the bank where he stores it all,” Noah added.
“Does he?” Nick asked their dad.
Dad would know. He was a banker.
“The Sandford Savings and Loan doesn’t have any secret vaults,” Dad said, wiping his chin with his napkin. “Only safe--deposit boxes. And if Mr. Summerling had a safe--deposit box or a lot of money, I wouldn’t be allowed to tell you. But . . .” He winked at Marly. “I wouldn’t get too excited if I were you. Whatever he left you is probably more likely to be ‘interesting’ than valuable.”
Marly knew her parents were probably right. But what if they were wrong?
After dinner, she emailed Aubrey:
From: Marly Deaver
To: Aubrey Etoh
Remember my neighbor, Mr. Summerling? The guy with the metal detector who searches for buried treasure? Well, you won’t believe this, but he died and actually left me something in his will. I don’t know what it is yet. I’ll find out on Monday. Maybe it’s money I could use to buy a plane ticket to come visit you! Wouldn’t that be great? Write back soon!
Best Friends Forever,
Ms. Lovelace’s Office
Ms. Lovelace’s office was located in a small brick building across the street from the bank where Marly’s dad worked.
Marly and her mom walked in and spotted a lady at a desk behind the counter. “Come in, come in,” she said. The lady was older than Marly’s mom, but not as old as Mr. Summerling. “You must be the Deavers.” Like everyone else, she glanced at Marly’s eye patch, then quickly looked away.
“Yes,” Mom said, checking her watch. They were a few minutes late.
“Everyone else is already here. I’ll take you back to the conference room.” The lady led Marly and her mom down the hall.
There were windows looking in to the conference room. Marly was surprised to see two kids she knew from school sitting at a long table in there. Isla Thomson and Sai Gupta. She didn’t know either of them very well. But she recognized the back of Isla’s head. Isla had long dark hair and she always wore headbands with cat ears. Today’s was pink. And everyone knew Sai because he always brought popsicles for the school on field day.
It looked like Isla was here with her mom, who held a sleeping baby in her arms. Sai was here with his dad.
There was another man sitting by himself across from Sai and his dad. He was all dressed up in a dark suit and tie. His thumbs tapped busily on the phone in his hands.
“Welcome!” The lady at the head of the table came to greet Marly and her mom, and everyone turned toward them. Isla and Sai seemed as surprised to see Marly as she was to see them.
“You must be Mrs. Deaver and Marly,” the lady went on. “I’m Stella Lovelace, Harry Summerling’s attorney.” She shook Mom’s hand first, then Marly’s.
“Please have a seat over there.” Ms. Lovelace gestured toward two empty chairs beside the man in the suit. He didn’t even glance up from his phone when Marly sat down beside him.
Ms. Lovelace closed the door, then took her seat at the head of the table. “Now that we’re all here—-” she began.
“Excuse me.” Isla’s mom gently rocked her baby. “When did Harry Summerling pass away? I never saw an obituary in the newspaper.”
“And how did he die?” Sai asked. His dad nudged him and shook his head. Embarrassed, Sai slid down in his chair.
Too bad, because Marly was wondering the same thing. She also wondered how Isla and Sai knew Mr. Summerling. Had he left them something in his will, too?
“It’s okay,” Ms. Lovelace said kindly. “The report from the coast guard says he drowned. He was in a small boat somewhere off the coast of Washington State when a storm came up. The boat was found, but he wasn’t in it.”
Marly’s mom put her hand to her mouth. “That’s terrible.”
“What was he doing out there?” Isla’s mom asked.
The man beside Marly finally put down his phone. “What do you think he was doing?” he said rudely. “He was searching for buried treasure. It’s all he ever did.”
“Does everyone know Jay Summerling, Harry’s son?” Ms. Lovelace asked.
Marly had lived next door to Mr. Summerling her whole life, but she never knew he had a son. Mr. Summerling’s son was about Marly’s mom’s age.
“We are so sorry for your loss,” Sai’s dad said, offering a hand to shake.
Jay didn’t take it. “Can we get on with this, please?” he said. “I have someplace to be at noon.”
Ms. Lovelace winced. “Of course,” she said. She opened the folder in front of her and took out a large brown envelope. There were several white envelopes in the folder behind it. She sliced into the brown envelope with a fancy gold letter opener and pulled out a single sheet of paper.
“This is Harry’s will,” she said, unfolding it. “It’s a letter. I’ll read it out loud.” She cleared her throat. “ ‘If you’re hearing this letter, then I am missing, dead, or perhaps I’ve been abducted by aliens.’ ” Jay snorted at that. “ ‘And it’s time to give away some of my earthly possessions—-’ ”
“Some of his possessions?” Jay asked.
“That’s what it says,” Ms. Lovelace said. “I’m reading this for the first time myself, sir. Shall I continue?”
Jay motioned for her to keep going.
“ ‘To my son, Jay,’ ” Ms. Lovelace read. “Oh, dear.” She paused. “It says, ‘I leave . . . nothing.’ ”
“Here we go,” Jay muttered.
“ ‘You have been a terrible disappointment to me, son,’ ” Ms. Lovelace read as the parents shifted uncomfortably in their seats. “ ‘You don’t call. You don’t visit. And you don’t take my treasure hunting seriously. So why should you reap the reward? You don’t deserve a share of my treasure—-’ ”
“What treasure?” Jay scoffed. “He never found any treasure.”
Ms. Lovelace seemed to be holding back a smile as she continued reading. “ ‘Oh yes, son. There is treasure. And I, Harry P. Summerling, being of sound mind and body, will that treasure to Ms. Marly Deaver, Mr. Sai Gupta, and Ms. Isla Thomson—-’ ”
“Wait, what?” Sai said, sitting up a little straighter.
Marly’s mouth fell open. “For real?”
“ ‘If they can find it,’ ” Ms. Lovelace continued. “ ‘I have created a series of puzzles for the three of them to solve. They must work together on each one. When they reach the end of the treasure hunt, anything they find is to be split evenly between them. Stella, please give them the envelope marked #2. Good luck! Sincerely yours, Harry P. Summerling.’ ”
Marly, Isla, and Sai gaped at each other.
Jay scowled. “That’s it? That’s all it says?” he asked.
“That’s all it says.” Ms. Lovelace set the letter on the table.
“I don’t understand,” Sai’s dad said.
Marly’s mom was equally confused. “So, there’s some sort of treasure,” she said. “We don’t know what it is, but for some reason, Harry Summerling has hidden it. And if our kids can find it, it belongs to them?”
“Yes. That is correct,” Ms. Lovelace said.
“But . . . why?” Isla’s mom asked. “Why would Mr. Summerling leave treasure to three children he’s not even related to?”
“He had his reasons,” Ms. Lovelace said mysteriously.
“This is ridiculous,” Jay said with a short laugh. “There’s no treasure. Now, what about the house? I assume Dad left that to me?”
“I don’t know,” Ms. Lovelace said, turning the paper over. “This letter doesn’t say anything about the house.”
“Well, read the other letters.” Jay gestured toward the folder in front of Ms. Lovelace.
“I’m sorry. I can’t.” Ms. Lovelace closed the folder. “Not today. Harry left specific instructions for when each one is to be opened. And by whom. This was the only letter I was supposed to read today.”
Jay shoved his chair back from the table. “Well, we’ll see what my attorney has to say about this,” he grumbled. “There is no treasure! I hope you all know that.” With that, he stormed out of the room, banging the blinds against the window on his way out.
The baby startled awake. He looked around and started to whimper. Isla’s mom put him to her shoulder and rubbed his back.
“So, is there a treasure?” Sai asked Ms. Lovelace in a small voice.
“And if there is, is it really ours?” Marly asked.
“Honestly, I don’t know what you’ll find at the end of this little treasure hunt,” Ms. Lovelace said. “But whatever it is, yes, it’s yours. Harry was very clear about that.”
Marly trembled with nerves and excitement. She would have to go on a treasure hunt with two kids she hardly knew. And share the treasure with them. But when it was all over, hopefully her portion would be enough to buy a plane ticket to Chicago.
Copyright © 2021 by Dori Hillestad Butler; Illustrated by Tim Budgen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.