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The Secret Tree, Page 2

Natalie Standiford

  The night was chilly and clear. An owl hooted high above us. “I heard that owl tried to swoop down and snatch up Kelly,” Lennie said. Kelly is our neighbor Mrs. Gorelick’s dog, a wheezy little Pekingese. “Luckily, Mr. Gorelick scared it away. But it sits in the woods across from their yard, watching and waiting for Kelly to come out.”

  “Quiet, Lennie,” Paz said. “You’re giving me the creeps.”

  Lennie’s small laugh had a touch of evil in it.

  We crunched over the carpet of leaves, weaving through the trees until we got to the edge of the woods. The Witch House rose tall and dark from fields frosted with moonlight.

  “All right,” Paz said grimly. “Let’s go.”

  Marcella wobbled on her shoulder as we skittered toward the dark porch. A single light glowed in a back window — the kitchen, I guessed — and smoke puffed out of the chimney.

  Someone was home.

  We took the three front steps slowly, but they creak, creak, creaked. The porch light wasn’t on.

  “I guess she’s not expecting trick-or-treaters,” I whispered.

  “Shh!” Paz said. “Just ring the bell and get it over with.”

  “You ring it,” Lennie said.

  “I’ll do it.” I reached for the doorbell. Just as my finger touched it … whap! An egg smacked against the front door and dripped yellowly down the wood.

  “The Mean Boys!” Lennie shouted.

  I ducked as another egg burst against the window just over my head, cracking the glass.

  “Ha-ha! Gotcha!” David whooped.

  Paz ducked behind the porch railing as an egg whizzed past her. Lennie and I ran into the yard to chase the Mean Boys away.

  The porch light suddenly flashed on. The Mean Boys threw one more egg at the house and vanished into the woods. Lennie and I hid behind a bush.

  “Paz!” I shouted, but she cowered on the porch, frozen with fear, just outside the puddle of light.

  The front door flew open and a wild-haired woman stepped out, shrieking, “I’m calling the police!” She wore a ratty bathrobe and a cat mask over her eyes. Maybe she was getting ready to go to a party. Maybe she was celebrating Halloween in her own way. Maybe she was crazy.

  She spotted Paz huddled on the porch and lunged for her. “You!” she screeched. “You!” She grabbed at Paz, ripping Marcella from her shoulder. Paz screamed and finally found her legs, scrambling off the porch and racing for the woods. Lennie and I were way ahead of her.

  “You!” The Witch Lady called again. “Curse you kids!”

  We ran without stopping all the way through the woods. The Mean Boys were waiting on the other side, laughing at the fear on our faces.

  “You were the first ones to run,” I reminded them.

  “We weren’t running because we were scared,” Troy said. “It was all part of the setup.” They hopped on their bikes. “We’ve got more tricking to do. Later, girls.”

  They zipped away, the cards in their wheel spokes pfft pfft pffting.

  “We should have known they were setting us up,” Paz said.

  “Hey.” Lennie reached for Paz’s shoulder. “Where’s Marcella?”

  Paz swallowed. Lennie hadn’t seen what had happened.

  “Paz? Did she fall off in the woods?”

  “Lennie —” I began.

  “Let’s go look for her,” Lennie said.

  “The Witch Lady got her,” Paz confessed. “She ripped her right off my shoulder.”

  Lennie’s mouth dropped open in horror. She isn’t the crying type, but I could tell she was fighting off tears. “Marcella …”

  “We’ll get her back, Lennie,” I said.

  “How? The Witch Lady’s keeping her prisoner! Who’s got the nerve to go back there and get her?”

  “It’s not worth risking that again,” Paz said. “It’s just a toy, Len. You’re getting too old to sleep with stuffed animals, anyway.”

  Lennie glared at Paz through wet eyes, a defiant, angry look that scared me. “You don’t care. You don’t care about me at all. You’re a terrible sister.”

  “Lennie —”

  Lennie ran home. Paz turned to me. “Well? Are you going to yell at me too?”

  “You didn’t mean to lose Marcella,” I said.

  “Exactly. Thank you.” Paz looked down at the sidewalk, her lower lip twitching. If she felt sad or guilty, she’d never admit it.

  “What did she look like?” I asked. “The Witch Lady. Up close, I mean.”

  “Her hair was all tangly, and she smelled like beer,” Paz said. “And she was missing a tooth right here.” Paz pointed to her upper right canine tooth. “She had a big hole there. But it was hard to see much of her face because she had that mask on.”

  “She got a good look at you, though.”

  Paz’s lip twitched again. “You think so?”

  “You’re the only one she saw, I guess.”

  “Yeah.” Paz tugged on a strand of hair and put it in her mouth, sucking on it. Her mother had been trying to get her to break that habit, and I hadn’t seen her do it in ages. “But she can’t do anything to me, right? We weren’t the ones throwing eggs.”

  “She doesn’t know that.”

  “Minty, are you trying to scare me? Quit it.”

  We walked back to her house. I picked up my candy and went home.

  Lennie never got Marcella back. None of us had been to the other side of the woods since that night. It was too scary. I’d hardly even thought about the Witch Lady….

  Until now.

  I crossed Western Street and walked past the Murphys’ house, where Kip and Casey live, past the home of Ms. Wendy Graecher, who lives with her cat, Phoebe, to Mortimer Mansion. That’s what Dad calls our house, even though it isn’t anything like a mansion. It’s just a regular house like all the others on Woodlawn Road.

  Dad was sitting at the picnic table on the back patio, a glass of iced tea sweating on the wood, watching the lightning bugs wink in the yard.

  “What’s the news, Araminta?” He eyed my red-stained clothes. “I hope that’s not blood.”

  I knew Dad was joking, because if anyone knows what blood looks like, it’s him. As a doctor, he sees gallons of it every day. I could never be a doctor, because if the red stuff on my shirt had been blood, I’d have been puking by now.

  “It’s Hawaiian Punch,” I told him.

  I heard shouting through the screen door. Mom and Thea, my big sister, were fighting again. No wonder Dad had decided to sit outside.

  “What now?” I asked.

  “Curfew,” Dad said. “Thea wants to stay out until midnight tonight.”

  Thea was fifteen. She had a part-time summer job teaching arts and crafts at a day camp. Her usual curfew was ten o’clock.

  I sat down and sipped Dad’s iced tea. He put his arm around me.

  “I hope I won’t turn out like Thea when I get older,” I said.

  “I doubt you will,” Dad said. “You’re a different creature, Minty.”

  Speaking of creatures … “We saw a weird flash in the woods,” I told him. “I chased after it, but I couldn’t tell what it was. Lennie thinks it was the Man-Bat.”

  Dad looked at me. “You shouldn’t have chased it, Minty. You don’t know who that might have been.”

  “Whoever it was, he ran away. And he wasn’t very tall. I think it was a kid.”

  “Strange.” Dad scratched the stubble on his face. He needed a shave.

  “Then Paz got a stomachache,” I said. “I told them to call you if they need to.”

  “I’m sure she’ll be fine.” That’s what he always said. “I’ve got to go to the hospital later tonight. They can bring her in if the pain doesn’t go away.” Dad worked long, odd hours, and lots of nights.

  I heard Thea stomp down the stairs. We both turned our heads as the front door slammed. Mom appeared at the back door, her face red from shouting.

  “Where’s she going?” Dad asked.

  “To tell Mel
ina all about her terrible mother,” Mom said. Melina is Paz’s older sister and Thea’s best friend. Usually, Thea complains to her about me. “Minty Mortimer, time for your bath.”

  I stood up. Dad gave me a pat. I followed Mom upstairs. The bathwater was already running.

  In my room, I took off my grubby T-shirt and shorts. I checked my shorts pocket before tossing them into the hamper and found the piece of paper from the tree in the woods. The running bathwater sounded almost like the murmur. I felt a slight breeze run through the room, or maybe it was just inside of me. I got goose bumps.

  I unfolded the paper and read what had been written there.

  No one loves me except my goldfish.

  I soaked in the tub as the bathwater cooled, wondering who could have written that note. Maybe the mysterious flashing creature left it there. After all, he’d been lurking in that part of the woods when I’d caught him spying on us.

  I said it out loud: “No one loves me except my goldfish.” Back in my bedroom, my own goldfish, Zuzu, restlessly circled the bowl on my dresser. Every kid in the neighborhood had a goldfish. Mr. Jack, who lived next door to Troy, owned a pet store, and he gave everyone a goldfish on his or her birthday.

  Anyone could have written that note. But who could be so terribly lonely?

  The Calderons were such a big family, I didn’t see how any one of them could feel unloved. Thea had Melina, and I had Paz. Even Hugo and Robbie had each other, and Lennie had me and Paz.

  I couldn’t imagine either of the Mean Boys writing a note like that. Could a grown-up have written it? Wendy Graecher lived alone next door, and she was always going on bad dates with men she met online. She had a goldfish, but she also had her cat, Phoebe, and I knew Phoebe loved her.

  Maybe the note was a secret code, or a message. The hole in the tree could be a spy drop-off point, which meant the mystery creature really was a spy, and he left coded secret messages in the tree for his contact to pick up in the middle of the night. Who could he be working for? The government? A spy agency? Aliens?

  But why spy on us? All we did was roller-skate and play kickball. I couldn’t see how some foreign government would be interested in that. Or aliens.

  And then I remembered Mr. and Mrs. Calderon. They worked in Washington, DC, at the Philippine embassy.

  Someone might want some secrets about the Philippines. Or maybe they were planning to kidnap the Calderon children! And demand the secrets in exchange for their release!

  I couldn’t soak another minute. I got out of the tub and put on my summer pajamas. Back in my room, I stashed the secret note in my special treasure box, along with a lock of my hair from my first haircut, a ticket stub from my first Orioles game, a program from the first Catonsville Nine bout I ever went to, Lemon E. Kickit’s autograph, my collection of Paz’s school pictures from first through fifth grades, and a turquoise ring Paz gave me that had broken. The note wasn’t a treasure, exactly, but it seemed important, something I should keep safe and hidden. I might need it someday.

  I got into bed and tried to read. But my mind wouldn’t settle down — thoughts about secrets and spies kept swirling through my brain. Someone knocked on the door. “Come in.”

  It was Dad. “I wanted to say good night before I leave for work.” He sat on my bed. He smelled good. He’d just shaved.

  “Dad, do you think that person in the woods was spying on us?” I asked.

  “Spies? Around here? I don’t know about that. Maybe it was Crazy Ike.” Dad made a spooky face. I shrank deeper under the covers with a happy shiver. He loved to tell the story of Crazy Ike. He used to hear about Crazy Ike when he was growing up, not far from where we lived now.

  “Who’s Crazy Ike?” I asked, as if I didn’t know the story by heart.

  “Who’s Crazy Ike?” Dad repeated. “Funny you should ask. Ike was a boy who lived a long time ago on a farm on the other side of the woods — just over there.” Dad jerked his thumb toward the woods across the street. “He lived in the very same house they call the Witch House today.”

  “Is that a fact?” I asked.

  “That’s a bona fide historical fact,” Dad said. “It was a farmhouse back in those days. They had chickens and grew corn in the fields around the house. Ike was always kind of crazy. He tried to ride the plow horse standing up, which never worked well. And he smoked a corncob pipe from the age of five, they say.”

  “That’s awfully young to start smoking,” I said, playing along.

  “Any age is too young to start smoking,” Dad said. “Take it from your doctor. Anyway, Ike made up lots of stories about himself. Some might call them lies.”

  “Like what?”

  “Like once he said a bear ran into the kitchen and ate all the mincemeat pie — when his own face was covered in molasses and pie crumbs. And once he told his father he couldn’t do chores because a monster was hiding in the chicken coop.”

  “Was there really a monster in the chicken coop?” I asked.

  “What do you think?” Dad laughed. “That’s not all. When a cinder from his pipe set fire to a haystack, he blamed a fire-breathing dragon. And when his teacher punished him for talking back in school, he said he didn’t do it — a ghost had possessed his body and forced him to sass her. His mother and father never knew when to believe him.”

  “Uh-oh.” I knew what was coming.

  “One day, Ike claimed he’d been bitten by a bat. His parents thought he was telling one of his stories. But Ike got crazier and crazier. He flew into a rage over nothing. He threw pitchforks at people from the hayloft. He started foaming at the mouth. Finally, his father got the doctor. And the doctor said —”

  “— Ike had rabies.”

  “That’s right. There was no cure for rabies in those days. There’s no cure now, but you’ll be all right if you get vaccinated in time.”

  “Did they have the vaccine back then?” I asked.

  “They had it, but it wasn’t always easy to get,” Dad said. “Not for poor farm boys, anyway.”

  “So what happened to Ike?”

  “He went crazy and died at the tender age of twelve. They say he’s buried on that land to this day, with nothing but a rock to mark his grave.”

  “Poor Ike.”

  “Yes indeed. Poor Crazy Ike. Some say he rose from his grave and grew into a Man-Bat: part man, part bat. A monster who lives in a cave in the woods —”

  “Paul, don’t scare her like that.” Mom was standing in the doorway, listening.

  “Lennie talks about the Man-Bat all the time,” I said. “I’m used to it.”

  “I don’t want you having nightmares about Man-Bats or Crazy Ike,” Mom said.

  “Or international spies,” I added.

  “Or anything at all,” she finished.

  Dad kissed me. “Good night, Minty. See you tomorrow.”

  Mom kissed me too. “Good night, honey. Don’t stay up too late reading.”

  “I won’t,” I lied. It was summer. I considered it my duty to stay up as late as my sleepy eyes would let me.

  When I finally fell asleep, I didn’t dream of the Man-Bat, or Crazy Ike, or international spies.

  I dreamed about a goldfish swimming in a bowl all alone.

  The next day, my life was one sentence different than it had been the day before. I kept looking at people I was used to seeing every day, and I wondered whether they felt that nobody loved them except their goldfish. Or if they were international spies.

  It was rainy, so Thea and Melina took us all — me, Paz, Lennie, Hugo, and Robbie — to the Oella Roller Rink. Paz looked a little pale, but her stomach was all better.

  “Did you ever figure out why it hurt so bad?” I asked.

  Paz just shook her head.

  We changed out of our sneakers and into our roller skates. We always brought our own skates instead of renting. We came to the rink so often that we had discount memberships, complete with photo ID. We stashed our membership cards in our sneakers and left them
under a bench.

  Thea and Melina helped Robbie and Hugo put on their skates. “The Carters asked me to babysit again,” Thea told Melina. “It’s good money. Plus the kids are cute. Not like that nightmare Troy Rogers.” She shuddered. “I’ll never sit for him again. Not after what happened last time.”

  Last time Troy had trained his cat, Slayer, to hide on a shelf in the pantry and leap out whenever the door opened. Every time Thea went to get something to eat — Troy was constantly asking for more nacho chips — Slayer would jump on her head. She had claw marks all over her shoulders when she got home.

  “I need some money,” Melina said. “I don’t mind babysitting if I get paid, but I’d rather be a lifeguard. My whole life is babysitting. For free.” She nodded at her younger brothers and sisters, lined up like ducks on the bench.

  “Hey,” Paz protested. “I watch them a lot too.”

  “I know the real reason you want to be a lifeguard,” Lennie said to Melina. “Kip Murphy.”

  Kip Murphy was sixteen and lifeguarded at the Rollingwood Pool. Girls were always circling around his chair, distracting him from his lifesaving work.

  Melina turned red. “That’s not true. I’m very concerned with water safety, fitness, and saving lives.”

  “Pfff,” Lennie scoffed.

  “Robbie, stop kicking,” Thea said.

  “Anyway, I was talking about having to watch you,” Melina said.

  “You don’t have to watch me anymore,” Paz said. “I’m in middle school now.”

  “Not until September,” Melina said. “And anyway, big deal.”

  “You’re still a baby until you’ve survived middle school,” Thea said. “At least a year of it.”

  “Yeah, wait till you see,” Melina warned. “Bullies roam the halls bonking kids with their backpacks —”

  “— and snapping girls’ bra straps,” Thea added. “If you’re wearing one.” She glanced at me.

  “I’m comfortable with who I am.” Somehow my arms ended up crossed over my chest. I didn’t need a bra yet. I wasn’t in any hurry to get one, either. Paz already had three training bras in DayGlo colors.