Six months ago, my grandfather and I left his house at 5:30 A.M. We arrived at the beach in time to watch the sun poke a hole in the seam where the sky meets the sea. We took our usual position at a table and chairs on the beach club’s stone patio next to the sand. No one else was there. All was normal, for the moment.
Papa, my grandfather, was on his laptop, and I was scanning the horizon, when I noticed what looked like a head floating in the Long Island Sound. I leapt up and ran toward the water, shouting, “Papa, Papa, there is a dead body in the water!” He either didn’t hear me or didn’t believe me. It’s not often that a corpse floats by. I was sure that this time it wasn’t my wild imagination. It even wore a baseball cap. My pace slowed as I moved closer.
“Keira, stop! Don’t move! Freeze, now!” Papa commanded.
“Let’s get out of here,” I screamed.
“Stay here. It will be OK,” he replied with a much softer voice. He kissed my head, and then started toward the water’s edge. He inched his way forward, his feet no match for the carpet of broken shells. “Ouch! Ouch!” he said with each step.
“Papa, stop! It’s too dangerous,” I yelled. I was sure that the floating body would leap out of the water and grab him. I sometimes let my imagination get the best of me.
As he bent over to pick it up, I wanted to run, but I couldn’t. It was like the sand had swallowed my legs. The fear worked its way up to my chest. I had to catch my breath. I had never seen a dead person before. I thought if I did, nightmares would follow forever. I couldn’t look down into the water. I kept my eyes focused on Papa’s face. Just as I was about to scream, I realized he was smiling, and saw what he was holding.
Papa put the ball between his legs and yanked with all his might to remove the baseball cap that was scrunched onto the ball. Although we laughed that it was only a hat stuck to a ball, I was still nervous. It had looked so real. I was thinking that at any moment an eye might pop out, and it would turn into a gory Cyclops—my imagination’s standard operating procedure when it comes to doing something. This is very different from “the anything is possible” of my daydreams.
Papa squeezed most of the seawater out of the hat, and tried to place it on my head.
“Papa, stop it! The hat is wet and yucky. How come grandfathers always like yucky things?” I didn’t tell him that I was afraid there might be crabs and other scary creatures hidden inside.
He didn’t reply. He curled his lower lip downward, pretending that I hurt his feelings. We both knew that he was kidding. It’s part of the fun we have together.
Papa and I chased seagulls as we raced back up the beach to where we had been sitting. The seagulls took to the air just as we were inches from catching them. I arrived at the table before Papa. I could hear him muttering, “ouch! ouch!” the whole time as the clamshells played havoc with his feet.
“It’s about time, slowpoke,” I teased.
Papa laughed at my kidding then got serious. “Would you like to go home, Gumdrop? —that was quite a scare we had.” Gumdrop is his special nickname for me.
Although I was still shaken, concerned that the Cyclops might still appear, I said, “No.” I didn’t want Papa to think I was a wimp. To convince him that I was OK, I said, “Hey, Papa, how come seagulls can fly?”
“I’m not sure. Let’s look it up on my laptop.”
Papa turned the computer on. However, the glare from the sun was too strong for us to see the screen clearly. I held my hand over my eyes, but that didn’t help much.
Papa put his hat on and said, “Keira, my hat’s visor worked for me. I can see the screen now.”
As Papa surfed the web searching for the answer, I slid the mysterious hat onto my head. I shivered. My imagination was up to its old tricks—I was sure that there were crawly, slimy creatures digging into my skull. I gritted my teeth and squeezed my fists, to fight off the fear of the terrifying images. I was sure this was the bravest thing I ever did.
The hat was a perfect fit. I shifted it a little to the right, then a little to the back, until it was comfortable. Moments later, my head started to tingle where the edge of the hat touched just above my ears, a soft vibration that gave me a sense of peace, not fear. Papa didn’t notice.
“Hey, Keira, I found the answer. Want to know why seagulls can fly?”
“I already know,” I said to the surprise of both of us.
“Stop kidding around,” Papa said.
“I’m not,” I replied. Before he could respond, I continued. “Seagulls’ bones, like those of all birds, are hollow, and as a result they only weigh a few pounds. Their feathers are light but strong. This allows them to create lift as they flap their wings. Just like when we press our arms and hands against the ground to do a pushup, birds press their wings against the pressure of the air below to push their bodies further into the air.”
“That’s right,” Papa stuttered. “But how did you know that? Did they teach you that in school?”
“We haven’t taken that yet. I don’t know how I knew it. It just came to me.”
Papa removed my hat and studied all sides of it. “The label reads, Made in Mali,” he said in a whisper. “It even has the same colors as their flag—green, yellow and red.” His tone was like my dad’s when he hears a rumor that he can’t quite believe. He put it back on my head. “Try this,” he said. “What’s the capital of the Ivory Coast?”
I placed my chin on my fist like my mom does in deep thought. “Yamoussoukro,” I answered. “Holy mackerel! How come I know that?” I yelled.
Papa stood there gazing at me with his mouth open. He stepped back and looked up, searching the skies.
“What are you looking for, Papa? Are you all right?”
“It can’t be,” Papa whispered.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “What can’t be?”
“I’m not sure. But I can only think of one reason why you know the answers to these difficult questions. Let me see your hat again.”
“Sure,” I replied. With unsteady hands, I removed the hat and handed it to him.
He hid the hat behind his back and asked, “Who was the third president of the United States? At what temperature does water boil? What is the tallest mountain in the world?”
“I don’t have any idea,” I responded.
He placed the hat back on my head and repeated the questions.
Without hesitation, I said, “Thomas Jefferson, 212 degrees Fahrenheit, Mount Everest.” What! How did I know that? This is too weird.”
Papa tried the hat on. He squeezed his eyes tight like I do before opening up a gift, wishing. It didn’t work. Papa folded his arms and looked down, his thinking position. I knew not to interrupt him. A few minutes later he raised his head. He looked worried.
“Keira,” I am pretty sure that this hat was meant for you to find and for you to wear.”
“But why me?” I asked. I don’t like to be singled out or the center of attention.
“Keira, I have something important to tell you, something you can never repeat.”
“Can I tell my mom and dad?” I asked.
“No, you cannot tell anyone. I know it’s not easy to keep a big secret, so I will understand if you don’t think you can.”
I didn’t answer right away. Part of me wanted to know because I wanted to tell my friends; that’s the best part of a secret. But I liked even more that Papa and I shared secrets together and that we always kept our promises to each other.
“Papa, you can trust me.”
Patting my right hand, he said, “I always have, Gumdrop. I always have.” He then gave me a big hug and shared his surprising secret.
“Keira, you know that I worked for the CP Company, living in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. What you don’t know is that I also worked for the U.S. Government. I was a spy.”
I thought Papa was kidding. I expected him to say, “Gotcha.” But he continued.
“I am telling you this for two reasons. The first has to do with your hat—which appears to be a magic hat. In West Africa, I befriended a tribal chief in Mali. He had a walking stick that gave him similar powers to those the hat gives you. We teamed up together to prevent an overthrow of the government. He was an old man and has since died.”
“Papa, maybe he found a way to send his magic to us. That is why the magic hat washed ashore at this beach and at the exact moment we were here,” I suggested.
“Not us, Keira. He sent the hat for you to find and you alone, Keira. That’s why the magic only works when the hat is on your head which brings me to the second reason I am sharing my secret. I’m bored. I have been ever since I retired five years ago. I miss the action and excitement of new challenges.”
“But Papa, why are you telling me this now?”
“I’ve been thinking about getting back into the spy business,” Papa continued. “The magic hat, if used the right way, could help prevent bad things from happening and keep the world safe. Since the magic hat only works for you, I would like you to be my partner. Even without the hat I think you are amazing.”
“I don’t think I’m amazing, Papa. I tend to avoid new adventures and new challenges. I always imagine that something bad will happen if I try something new.” I paused, gaining courage to continue. “I still think that the ball we found might turn into a Cyclops,” I admitted.
“Keira, like you, I have a good imagination. I use it to solve problems, not avoid them, something I am sure you can learn to do as well. Together we will be a formidable team. Once you redirect that magnificent imagination of yours toward big ideas and great achievements, we will be the best detective agency ever. Trust me.”
That is when The Keira and Papa Detective Agency was formed. That is when I became a spy.