Seventeen year-old Ticker Naft can't read or write; his sister won't get out of bed; and his father has a worrisome health problem. Then there's that big mystery Grandma keeps hinting at about Grandpa and the long ago house fire next door. When Grandpa dies abruptly after a smelt-eating contest, Ticker is thrown into an adult world that is at once captivating and cruel. Far from the safe haven of his special classes at school, he enters an apprenticeship on the local railroad, where he changes rails, pounds spikes, throws switches, and tries to figure out the often confusing intentions of his co-workers. But Ticker's true test comes when he is accused of a shameful crime he didn't commit. While he negotiates this tricky course on Grandpa's three-wheeled bicycle, events seem determined to bring him down. Ticker must muster all his strength to keep his head above water while he tries to honor Grandpa's secret to life: Got to find a way.