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Chapter 1

Grim

Grim.

It’s not the kind of name you hear every day. Unless, of course, your name is Grim.

Grímner Ingólfur Hafnarfjörður Magnússon, to be precise, which isn’t so much a name as it is the sort of mythological, historical, and geographical mash-up you get when your father is a Distinguished Professor of Viking and Medieval Nordic Studies.

Grim’s mother, who lovingly indulged her husband’s quirky ethnographic enthusiasms, had been perfectly willing to go along with the rather unorthodox naming scheme before Grim was born. But when Grímner Ingólfur Hafnarfjörður Magnússon arrived six weeks early and she held the tiny, four-pound newborn in her arms, it suddenly seemed like far too hefty a name to bestow on a such tiny creature.

She feared that the next day’s newspaper might bear the headline…

INFANT CRUSHED BY WEIGHT OF OWN NAME

So she called him ‘Grim’ from the moment he was born. As if by pruning his name to a single syllable she would be lightening the load and increasing his chances of survival.

She never called him by his full name. Not even when she was angry. It was never, “Grímner Ingólfur Hafnarfjörður Magnússon! You come down here this instant!” Instead, she turned the “r” into a growl: “Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrim!”

But despite his scrawny beginnings, Grim had grown into his name quite nicely. Now 17 years old, he was a strapping 6′1″, with his father’s dark hair and olive complexion. Grim had always been a little envious of his younger brothers, Thór and Njáll, who had their mother’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. When he looked in the mirror, the only thing that reminded him of his mother was half his eye color. It was as if they’d mixed his father’s brown eyes with his mother’s blue eyes to come up with his green.

At the moment, those green eyes were closed as Grim stood in the middle of the expansive east lawn — shirt off, arms outstretched, head back — waiting.

Three, two…

And there it was, one second ahead of schedule, the gurgling and sputtering of water flooding underground pipes, followed by the angry hiss of awakening sprinkler heads. In the sweltering late afternoon heat, Grim desperately needed to cool off and the vigorous spray of the east lawn’s No. 18 fixed-pattern nozzles should have cooled him off quite nicely. But after a few seconds he realized that the only thing being cooled off quite nicely was his left shin.

He opened his eyes and looked down at the sprinkler directly in front of him. Instead of a strong, round spray pattern, it was spitting limply on his left leg. He looked around, spotted two other sprinklers with similar problems, and started making the rounds. He loved doing sprinkler work when the weather was hot. After you reach adolescence, most people think you’re too old to run through the sprinklers on a hot summer day. But if you pick up a screwdriver and walk through the sprinklers, you can call it “irrigation maintenance.”

Within just a few minutes, he’d taken care of the three misbehaving sprinklers and was standing back on the sidewalk, dripping water onto the hot cement where it evaporated almost as fast as it hit the ground. It was only the third week of May, but the afternoon temperatures had been hovering in the mid-90s all week. Grim could sense that it was going to be a very long, very hot Idaho summer and he was almost thankful that he wasn’t going to be there to experience it.

Grim heard the familiar squeak, followed by the familiar slam, of a screen door, followed by the clicking of heels on cement. He knew what was coming.

“Mr. Magnússon,” said Florence Peterson, looking down from the expansive cantilevered patio as a queen might look down on her subjects. “It’s not enough that you’re abandoning me for the entire summer to go traipsing about the English countryside. You now seem intent on giving people the impression that I hire male strippers to do my yard work. Would you kindly put on a shirt before one of my nosy neighbors sees a half-naked man roaming the grounds and starts another round of vicious rumor-mongering.”

Grim glanced down the hill at Agnes Johansson’s house on the valley floor below. The 98-year-old Mrs. Johansson was the only neighbor, nosy or otherwise, within a one-mile radius. And while he didn’t doubt Mrs. Johansson’s ability to lead a crack surveillance team, he did doubt her eyesight. She’d been legally blind for the past eight years and had to position her chair two feet from the TV screen if she wanted to watch Jeopardy.

“My shirt’s in the car,” he said, hitching a thumb at the battered Volvo station wagon parked at the bottom of the driveway, “but I’d be happy to go down and get it, if you’d like.”

“Don’t bother,” she sniffed. “If you scratched yourself reaching into that rust bucket you’d probably get tetanus and sue me for millions! Speaking of which, I certainly hope that when you return in the fall it will be in a vehicle from which you haven’t had to evict chickens.”

“I didn’t evict them,” Grim said with a slight grin. “I told them they could stay if they helped with the car payment.”

“Has the ‘ToxicTurf’ wagon arrived?” Mrs. Peterson asked, changing the subject.

“Not yet. They won’t be here till four o’clock. And I want to reassure you that I’ve talked to Mr. Nelson and he has promised not to do any spraying while I’m gone.”

“Well, I’m not going to take any chances!” she declared, turning stiffly, and disappeared into the house, the screen door slamming behind her.

Grim made one last circuit of the grounds. He’d spent all spring getting everything to the point that it should be able to coast through the summer, but he still worried about what condition the grounds would be in when he returned in September.

It’s not that he didn’t have faith in Mr. Nelson and his ChemoGrass franchise… OK, it was that he didn’t have faith in Mr. Nelson and his ChemoGrass franchise, but he didn’t have much of a choice. ChemoGrass was the only other horticultural game in town.

ChemoGrass was a father and son concern, with Mr. Nelson handling all of the HazMat work (fertilizers, insecticides, etc) and his 14-year-old son, Kevin, doing the mowing. Kevin was an avid comic book fan who liked to pass the tedious hours on the riding mower by reading. He’d been a little more careful since the incident with Mrs. Knudsen’s cat, but you’d still often see Kevin ricocheting across lawns, steering with his left hand while totally absorbed in the graphic novel clutched in his right. He was like a robotic vacuum cleaner that travels in a straight line until it runs into an obstacle, then turns in a random direction and continues on its way, eventually covering the entire floor.

As for Mr. Nelson, he was a firm believer in ChemoGrass’ unofficial motto: “There’s no lawn or garden problem that a heavy application of petrochemicals can’t solve.” But Grim had been even more firm when he’d talked to Mr. Nelson about taking over the groundskeeping duties for the summer: There was to be no spraying. Period. It was a bitter organic pill for Mr. Nelson to swallow, but in the end he’d agreed.

Grim made a final pass through the small orchard, checking the apricot trees for any sign of the previous fall’s powdery mildew. (None, thank goodness.) He tied up some errant canes on the climbing roses, pulled a few nascent weeds from the flower beds, and was turning the compost pile one last time when he heard the diesel engine of the ChemoGrass truck sputtering up the hill. Grim made his way to the top of the driveway just as the vehicle lurched to a stop, the ChemoGrass mystery liquid sloshing back and forth in its large translucent tank.

Mr. Nelson hopped down from the cab. Kevin remained slumped in the passenger seat, glued to his graphic novel, which, if the cover was to be believed, pitted an army of mechanized samurai against half a dozen Japanese schoolgirls who were apparently too busy saving the world to buy new school uniforms to replace the one’s that they’d obviously outgrown.

“Hello, Mr. Nelson.” Grim said, shaking Mr. Nelson’s hand. “Hey, Kevin. ‘Sup?” he added, with a half-nod in Kevin’s direction.

“‘Sup?” Kevin replied, returning the half-nod without looking up from his book. Conversations with Kevin were usually conducted in half-nods and half-syllables.

“How are you today, Mr. Nelson?” Grim asked.

“Well,” Mr. Nelson said quietly, glancing anxiously at the house. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about meeting Mrs. Peterson.”

“Why is that?”

“Well, my wife met Mrs. Peterson once and said it was one of the most unpleasant experiences of her life. I asked her if she had any advice and all she said was, ‘Be confident. She can smell fear.’ ”

Just then, the screen door squeaked open and they both turned to see Mrs. Peterson emerging from the house wearing a World War II-era gas mask.

Grim stifled a laugh, but he could hear Mr. Nelson chanting under his breath, “Be confident. She can smell fear. Be confident. She can smell fear…”

Grim put a comforting hand on Mr. Nelson’s shoulder and said, “You’re in luck! With that gas mask on, she probably can’t smell a thing.”