Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Willoughbys Return, Page 1

Lois Lowry


  * * *

  Title Page













































  Read More from Lois Lowry

  About the Author

  Connect with HMH on Social Media


  Copyright © 2020 by Lois Lowry

  All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to [email protected] or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.

  Cover illustration © 2020 by Chloe Bristol

  Cover design by Natalie Fondriest

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Lowry, Lois, author.

  Title: The Willoughbys return / by Lois Lowry.

  Description: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, [2020] | Series: The Willoughbys | Audience: Ages 8 to 12. | Audience: Grades 4–6. | Summary: Thirty years after their disappearance, the previously frozen Willoughbys have thawed out and returned from the Alps, to the consternation of their children and grandchildren.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2019058453 (print) | LCCN 2019058454 (ebook) | ISBN 9780358423898 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780358423904 (ebook)

  Subjects: CYAC: Family life—Fiction. |

  Brothers and sisters—Fiction. | Humorous stories.

  Classification: LCC PZ7.L9673 Wk 2020 (print) |

  LCC PZ7.L9673 (ebook) | DDC [Fic]—dc23

  LC record available at

  LC ebook record available at




  The front page of the New York Times, on a Thursday in June:


  On the same day, on an inside page of a Zurich newspaper:


  These two events, it was later proved, were related. It’s complicated.1


  High on a mountain in Switzerland (one of the Alps, though a minor Alp, not a particularly well-known Alp, not the Matterhorn or one of those postcard-y ones), an odd, lumpy, ice-encrusted shape began to move slightly, causing the glistening snow to shift.

  It had been very warm and sunny for days. Weeks, actually—even months. Across the globe, glaciers had shrunk and icebergs had dissolved. Now, on this insignificant Alp, which had been snow-covered for eons, suddenly rocks began to appear, sleek with water from the snowmelt. Here and there a green stem emerged, and an occasional flower.

  And now, a moving lump.

  Then, beside the first strangely moving shape, another large, snowy lump shifted. Amazingly, from one of the shifting mounds, a hand emerged. It brushed some snow aside, revealing an entire arm. Then a second arm appeared.

  The first mound sat up, and the two arms, moist from the melted snow, began to brush snow and wipe water from a face. It was a newly defrosted face, male, with a glowering frown. It looked around, perceived the second mound nearby, and reached over to give it a poke. Then another poke, and another. Finally the second lump sat up, also frowning. This one appeared to be female (though it is hard to tell, with a lump).

  “I bet anything my hair is an absolute mess,” the second lump grumbled.

  But the first lump paid no attention. He was testing his stiff fingers, tapping at them to dislodge a few ice particles. Finally he reached down to his right hip and removed a soggy wallet from his pocket.

  “I knew it!” he groaned, prying open the wet leather. “My money is ruined! Sodden. Practically dissolved. And all stuck together in a messy wad.”

  “Our dollars?”

  “No, those ridiculous Swiss francs1 they made us get. Clearly inferior. American dollars wouldn’t deteriorate like this.”

  “Well, are they usable enough for food, at least? I’m hungry.”

  “Of course they’ll take our money. They’re all crooks here.”

  The woman (because they were a pair: man and woman) groaned, struggled to her feet, then knelt. “Where’s my purse? I don’t see my purse.” On her hands and knees, she began pawing through the wet snow. “Here!” she said. “Here it is! But yuck—it’s drenched!”

  “Don’t worry about it. And stand up! You look like a cockroach, crawling around that way. Come on. We’ll make our way down to the village and get a quick lunch—not that they have any decent food in this godforsaken place. Then we’ll get the first train out.” The man stood upright with some difficulty and replaced the wet billfold in his hip pocket.

  Finally the pair, grumbling and complaining, managed to stumble slowly down the side of the thawing Alp, passing on the low slopes meadows dotted with cows, toward the tiny village at its foot. The one main street was lined with brightly painted homes and dotted with flower boxes filled with petunias and geraniums. They found a table at a small café, where they ate heartily of a veal stew and each had three glasses of quite a good wine. But they were thwarted when the bill was brought to their table.

  “I’m so sorry,” the waiter said as he looked with dismay at the sodden mass of Swiss francs that the man offered him. “Ve can’t accept vet money. But—”

  “Vet? Good lord, man—can’t you even say the word wet?”

  “Apologies, sir. I vill try harder. Damp vould be okay, perhaps. But soggy vet is bad.”

  “Give them a credit card, dear,” the woman suggested.

  With a loud sigh the man pried a platinum card loose from his waterlogged wallet.

  “I’m sorry, Mr. . . .” The waiter looked carefully at the card. “Ah, Mr. Villoughby. But this credit card expired many years ago.”

  “It’s WILLOUGHBY, you idiot! Why can’t you dolts pronounce a W the way normal people do?”

  “I’m wery sorry, sir. I vish I could,” the waiter replied, with a roll of his eyes that implied he did not vish any such thing.

  The maître d’ appeared, smiling politely. “Is there a problem?” he asked. Then he looked more closely at the ill-tempered couple. “Oh. I see you’ve defrosted. You’re still damp.”

  “Defrosted?” bellowed Mr. Willoughby. “What on earth—”

  “You were frozen,” the maître d’ explained, and peered at the date on the credit card. “And now you’ve thawed. It’s happened to a number of climbers.”

  “And many goats, as vell,” the waiter added. “It’s the varming.”

  “The vat? I mean: what?”

  “Global varming, sir.”

  Mrs. Willoughby sighed. “You never believed in that, Henry. But now look.” She patted her own head. “My hairstyle is hopelessly out of date. Take me home, right away.”

  “Bring me a telephone,” Mr. Willoughby demanded.

  “Of course,” the maît
re d’ said. He nodded to the waiter, who scurried away to find a phone. “You must call your family.”

  “Family?” Henry Willoughby said, looking startled.

  His wife groaned. “Oh lord, we have those horrible children. Do we know their phone number, Henry? Do we even know where they live?”

  Her husband shrugged. “I forget. But we don’t have to worry about them. We hired that nanny, remember?”

  “Oh, yes. The nanny.”

  “Anyway, it doesn’t matter about them,” her husband muttered. “I’m calling my bank.”

  The maître d’ smiled politely. “You should certainly do that,” he said. “You owe us vun hundred and twelve Swiss francs for your dinner. I do hope you enjoyed the weal? And may I pour you some more of this vine?”


  Sad to say, the nanny had passed away some years before. She was immortalized now in an oil portrait that hung in—

  Oh, wait. A little history is necessary here. A little filling in of the details.

  Many years before—thirty years to be exact—Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby had embarked on an extended vacation,1 leaving their four children behind. They didn’t like the children very much (and to be honest, the children didn’t like them, either), and so it was not a tragedy for them to be separated. But it would have been illegal for them to leave the children all alone (the eldest, Tim, was just twelve). To keep things on the up-and-up, Mr. Willoughby had advertised for a nanny and had hired the no-nonsense woman, who appeared at the front door on her first day of work with a starched and folded apron in her satchel.

  Then, when their parents did not return (because they had stupidly worn shorts and sandals to go mountain climbing) and finally the Swiss government had announced that the couple had frozen solid on an Alp, perched on an icy ledge from which they could not be retrieved (though for a few coins they could be viewed by telescope from several tourist locations), and the house in which they had lived was sold, the children and Nanny had to rethink their living arrangements. Fortunately, Nanny was very enterprising. She took a job in the nearby home (mansion, actually) of a man, founder and president of Consolidated Confectionaries, Inc., who had made a fortune manufacturing candy. All four children, and even their cat, went with her.

  And guess what! The billionaire, Commander Melanoff, fell in love with her! Well, why wouldn’t he? She was a wonderful cook, a fine housekeeper, a no-nonsense woman, and a dutiful caretaker not only of the children but of Commander Melanoff himself. She trimmed his mustache and sprinkled cinnamon on his oatmeal. He was a very rich and very lonely bachelor. In time there was a wedding and a happily-ever-after.


  Oh dear. Eventually, after many years, she passed away. And now she was an oil portrait hanging on the front wall of the mansion. Commander Melanoff had commissioned the portrait from a famous painter, and he had directed that the portrait show Nanny the way he fondly remembered her: with her no-nonsense expression, and oven mitts on her hands. He had installed special lighting so that she seemed to glow.

  The commander, an elderly man now, lived in a palatial suite of rooms on the third floor. He spent his time reading history and composing poetry.2 All of his poems were about Nanny. Whenever he was on the first floor, he stood in front of the portrait, gazing at it and reciting his odes to her memory.

  Sometimes his grandson, eleven-year-old Richie, covered his ears and begged, “Not that one, Grandpa!” when the commander began to intone with reverence: “There once was a woman named Nanny . . .”

  “That’s inappropriate, Grandpa!” Richie said, because he knew the next line, which referred to Nanny’s backside and began “Who had an incomparable . . .”

  “Nothing is inappropriate if it is true,” the commander replied, and continued his recitation. But Richie chanted “La la la” very loudly and ran off down the hall so that he couldn’t hear the poem.

  Oh, wait. We have to explain Richie. The Willoughby children had all grown up, of course. They had gone to college and taken jobs and moved away to live their various lives. All but Tim. Tim, the eldest, had always been a clever boy. Now forty-two years old, with the blessing of Commander Melanoff, he had taken over the candy manufacturing company, which had continued its enormous and profitable success. He and his wife lived in the mansion with their little boy. Richie was Tim Willoughby’s son.


  “What’s wrong?” Richie asked, entering the large dining room where his parents were having breakfast. “I can hear Grandpa sort of yowling up on the third floor.”

  Then he looked at his father, who had just crumpled the New York Times, had thrown it onto the floor, and was pounding the mahogany table with his fist. At the edge of his placemat, his coffee cup had overturned and a dark puddle of coffee was expanding.

  At the other end of the table, Richie’s mother rang the small silver bell that summoned the maid, who appeared instantly through an unobtrusive door.

  “Clean that up, please, before it damages the rug,” Ruth Willoughby directed the maid, indicating the spilled coffee with a nod of her head.

  “And the paper, ma’am? Shall I smooth it out?” the maid asked, indicating the crumpled New York Times on the carpet. But Richie’s mother murmured, “No, get rid of it.” So the maid wiped up the spilled coffee, then collected the ruined newspaper and took it to the kitchen to add to the recyclables. (The Willoughby family, and Commander Melanoff as well, were all very environmentally aware.)

  Tim Willoughby subscribed to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. But he had no reason, really, to read European newspapers, like the one in Switzerland that had recently described, in a brief article, the amazing reappearance of the defrosted couple in the Alps.

  Too bad. He would have been very interested in that article, because the newly thawed Americans were his parents.

  But he had been distracted by the major headline and front-page news from the US Congress. The banning of candy! How could this have happened? Well, he knew exactly how it had happened! It was the dentists! The American Dental Association! They had been lobbying for months against candy. They ran ads on TV showing openmouthed children displaying rotting, discolored teeth while the voice of a mournful dentist explained gloomily how if only they had not eaten candy, they would not have reached this sad state.

  And finally all of the senators and representatives had been convinced. Well, not all. An elderly Democratic senator from Vermont, a bald man with ill-fitting false teeth and a liking for gummy bears, had voted against the bill. And there were two Republicans who had found it amusing to show up on the floor of the House of Representatives sucking on lollipops. They had also voted no.

  But they were the only ones. And now, with the candy-ban bill voted into law, the newspaper said, candy was to be immediately removed from stores across the country. Factories would be closed down. Halloween trick-or-treating would be reworked—maybe comic books could become the new treats?

  Richie was still standing in the doorway when his grandfather, wearing a bathrobe, came down the long stairway. He was no longer yowling, but he was snuffling and dabbing at his eyes. At the foot of the stairs he turned, as he always did, and bowed his head in front of Nanny’s portrait. Richie cringed, hoping his grandpa would not begin to recite a naughty poem. But Commander Melanoff only murmured, “Nanny, Nanny, Nanny . . .”

  Then he turned, patted Richie briefly on the head, and entered the dining room. “You’ve heard?” he asked Tim.

  “Yes,” Richie’s father replied in a low voice.

  “We’re ruined, aren’t we?”

  Tim Willoughby nodded. “Ruined. Totally.”

  In the silence that followed, Richie asked, “Is it okay if I go out and play?”

  His father stared at him. “What do you plan to play with?”

  Richie thought. “Um, my Firepulse Innovation top-grain leather basketball.”

  “Is that new?” his father asked.

  “Yes. I ordered it last week and
it just came yesterday. I’m not sure if I like it yet. I might get a Spalding TF-1000.”

  Richie had always been allowed to order whatever toys or gadgets he wanted. Billionaires (and their children, and even their grandchildren) can do that, of course.

  His father rose from his seat, went to his son, and put his arm around him. “Richie, we’re going to have to cut back.”


  “You go ahead outside to play with your basketball. But don’t order anything else. We’re destitute. We’ve been destroyed.”


  “Yes. By dentists.”


  In the well-tended yard (gardeners clipped and mowed and trimmed constantly) of the mansion, Richie bounced1 his new basketball half-heartedly and thought briefly about dentists. But his thoughts were boring, and he hadn’t completely understood when his father said they’d have to cut back. He had thought it referred to the shrubbery.

  He pushed aside the thick rhododendron bushes that grew beside the fence and glanced into the yard next door to see if the Poore children might be playing there. The aptly named Poores had no lawn, no bushes, no landscaping—nothing but sparse grass and weeds around their tiny house.

  But the yard next door was empty. Richie sighed. He bounced his ball again a few times. Inside the mansion, his father and grandfather were talking urgently on the phone to banks, to corporate headquarters, to the dispatcher who monitored the location of all fourteen hundred trucks that carried candy around the country and even into Canada. It was all illegal now: all those thousands of chocolate bars and lollipops and chewy caramels. And licorice sticks! Oh my! It was their best seller, had been for decades: the thin, rubbery spiraled candy called Lickety Twist.


  In the little house on the other side of the fence, where it sat in the shadow of the mansion, Mrs. Poore and her children were in the kitchen.

  The Poore children had never tasted Lickety Twist. They had never tasted any candy at all because they were . . . well, poor.