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Black and Blue Magic
By Zilpha Keatley Snyder
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Zilpha Keatley Snyder
All rights reserved.
On the very first morning of the summer vacation when Harry Houdini Marco was almost twelve years old, a pretty weird thing happened. Right at the time Harry didn't think too much about it, for some reason; maybe because he'd never been the kind of kid who went in for any sort of magic stuff. It wasn't until afterwards that he began to have second thoughts about what happened that day in the attic. But afterwards—considering the way the rest of the summer turned out—he decided he might as well believe there'd been something fishy about that first morning, too.
The day started out badly—about as bad as a first day of vacation possibly could. Harry's first chore was to mow the lawn in front of the boarding house, and it was right then that things started off on the wrong foot. Actually, Harry was feeling cheerful enough when he started, but, right smack dab in the middle of the mowing, a moving van pulled up in front of Pete Wilson's apartment a few doors down Kerry Street. Of course, Harry had known that the Wilsons were planning to move, but he had hoped it wouldn't be until the end of the summer. But no such luck. So there went Pete—not one of Harry's best friends but certainly the very last kid anywhere near Harry's age on the whole street. Moving to the suburbs, just like all the families in the neighborhood except the Marcos. Summer vacation suddenly began to look like a long lonely stretch of nothing.
Harry worked off a little bitterness by fiercely mowing down the last surviving column of tall green grass, and then he collapsed, feeling a lot like a mowed-down last survivor himself. But lying there in the sunshine—strangely warm weather for San Francisco in June—he began to feel just a bit better. The air around him was juicy with the damp green smell of cut grass, the sky was blue, and a whole three months of freedom stretched ahead. It looked as if something would almost have to happen.
He propped his heels up on the wheel of the lawn mower and began to consider the possibilities. Maybe somebody really interesting would move into Marco's Boarding House. Of course, there already was Mr. Brighton, except that he was so busy most of the time. Even better, maybe Mike Wong would come to spend the whole summer with his grandparents at their grocery store on the corner. A whole summer of Mike would really liven things up.
Or it might even be possible that this year Mom would scrape together enough money for a vacation trip. That would be best of all. Every summer for years they'd talked about a trip, but every time it had fallen through. Of course, that wasn't Mom's fault. It takes a lot of money to go on a trip when, on top of all the other expenses, you have to pay someone to run a boarding house while you're gone.
But things had been better than usual at Marco's lately. There had been four steady boarders for quite a while now; and the two little rooms for temporary people had been rented fairly often by traveling salesmen. Yes, the Marcos just might make it this summer—if only the washing machine didn't go on the fritz again, or the furnace blow up, or some other dumb thing happen, as it always seemed to do just when they got a little ahead.
Thinking about all the things that could go wrong was bringing on a relapse of serious gloominess, when Mom came out on the veranda with a dust mop. "Well, if it isn't Hard-Working Harry," she said as she shook the mop over the railing. "I wondered what happened to you when I heard the mower stop half an hour ago. I was afraid you'd disappeared in a puff of smoke, but I see you only collapsed."
Mom hitched herself up onto the porch railing, pulled the old red kerchief off her head and ran her fingers through her curly brown hair. Sitting there on the veranda railing, swinging her legs, and sort of squinting from the sunshine on her face, she almost looked like a—well, like a girl, or something. Harry frowned. As a rule, he never thought much about how Mom looked. But now, he wished she'd get down off the railing and quit wrinkling up her nose that way. After all, a woman with an almost grown-up son—twelve years old in October—oughtn't to go around looking like a teenager, for Pete Squeaks!
After a minute or two, Mom slid down off the railing and started tying the kerchief over her hair. "I can't really blame you," she said. "That sun feels marvelous, after all the fog. But there is a lot to be done. When you finish recuperating from mowing that vast expanse of lawn, there are still the wastebaskets and the garbage, and that broken chair should go up to the attic till I can find the time to fix it. Oh yes, and Miss Thurgood wants you to go to the drugstore for her." Mom looked up at the sunny sky, sighed, and took her dust mop back inside the dark old house.
Harry sat up and scratched his ankles slowly, while he gave his mushy muscles a chance to get used to the idea of getting back to work. That part about the "vast expanse of lawn" had been kidding, of course. Mom was like that; kidding him into getting back to work instead of bawling him out the way some mothers would have done. Actually the lawn was so little that Harry was always scraping himself on something when he tried to turn the mower around to head back the other way.
Really, it was pretty silly to bother with such a dinky patch of grass. Harry had told Mom so more than once. But Mom said it was the only bit of green left on the block, and besides she could remember when she used to play games there when she was a little girl. Of course, things had been different then, and the lawn had been much bigger.
A lot of things had been different back in the old days when Mom was a girl. She had been Lorna Bainbridge before she was married, and the house had been Bainbridge Place, instead of Marco's Boarding House. There'd been lots of big old houses on the block then, and lawns and trees too. But times had changed, and where the big side yard had been, there was now a two-story cement building, squeezed in between Marco's and Wong's Grocery. Where Mom had once played tag on a green lawn, Jason's Cleaners steamed and hissed on the ground floor, and upstairs, Madelaine's School of Ballet tinkled and thumped.
Mr. Jason, the cleaner, wasn't much of a neighbor. He lived some place else, and at his shop he only worked, with no time for visiting. Madelaine was a little more interesting. She was a phony French lady from Chicago, and she lived right there in a little room at the back of the studio. Her ponytail was long and straight and skinny, and so was the rest of her. She looked even more so because of the things she wore—long underwear in bright colors. Mom said the underwear things were called leotards; and Mr. Brighton, who had lots of funny sayings, said that Madelaine had a shape like a yard of pump-water.
Anyway, even before Mom was born, the depression had started things changing, and now all but two of the big old homes were gone: Marco's, and the house right next door where the Furdells lived. And even the Furdells' house could hardly be counted, because a big brick and plaster building had been stuck right on the front of it, where Mrs. Olive Furdell made her candy and sold it.
Harry had scratched both ankles thoroughly, and retied one shoe, since he had first thought about getting up off the grass. There didn't seem to be anything else that needed doing, so he pulled himself together and stood up. The lawn mower, groaning and growling behind him as he pulled it slowly around back to put it away, seemed like an echo of his state of mind.
Usually Harry disliked the job of emptying the garbage and all the wastepaper baskets for the big boarding house, but today he was so busy brooding over his lack of prospects for the summer that he hardly noticed. But the next job, carrying a heavy rocking chair up three flights of stairs to the attic, was hard enough work to force him to give it his full attention. Even with his mind on his work, Harry managed to whack himself on the shins several times and trip himself once, when one of the rockers got stuck between two balusters on the staircase. Harry was too used to that sort of thing to get excited over it, but it did deepen his gloom a little.
Once inside the small fourth-floor attic, Harry cleared a space for the broken chair and then looked around for a place to catch his breath for a minute. A fat round of rolled-up rug looked fairly comfortable, and he collapsed on it on his stomach like a panther lying along a limb of a tree. It was while he was lying there in the warm, dimly lit attic, that the weird thing started happening.
He'd been lying there for a while with his chin on his hands, when his glance happened to wander into a dark corner—and he almost fell right off the rug. There, only a few feet away, a strange, white face was staring at him over the top of a marble-topped washstand. Harry's heart had time for only a couple of fancy beats before he realized what it really was that he was seeing. Someone had put one of Dad's posters of the old Swami behind the washstand so that just the face stuck out over the top. Harry hadn't actually been frightened, but he couldn't help grinning a little in relief.
Now that he knew what it was, Harry remembered seeing the poster before. It was a phony-looking, old-fashioned picture of the Swami in fancy oriental robes and huge red turban. There were some big black letters across his middle that said THE GREAT SWAMI, but those were now out of sight behind the washstand. All that you could see was the pale wrinkled face, faded and dusty; and two huge dark eyes that for some reason seemed as bright as ever, so that they seemed to blaze out at you from the dim corner.
The poster had belonged to Dad way back when he was a boy. Even way back then Dad had planned on a career as a magician, and the old Swami, along with Harry Houdini and all the other famous magicians, had been his idols. Dad had turned out to be a magician all right, and when Harry was born Dad had named him after Harry Houdini—which at least was better than being named after the Swami—and Harry was supposed to grow up to be the greatest magician of all. Only, for some reason, Harry had never been able to fit himself into Dad's plans.
Harry was just lying there thinking about things like that, and wondering how he happened to turn out to be such an unmagical type, when all at once the Swami winked one of his big black eyes. For the next few seconds Harry was too astonished to think about anything, and before he could get his wits about him, the poster face smiled, with a hundred little rearrangements of wrinkles and a gleam of white teeth. A cracked and creaky voice that Harry remembered hearing once before said, "Remarkable weather we're having, isn't it?"
It was the usual kind of thing for people to say when it was warm in San Francisco in the summertime, but it was pretty unusual for a poster to say it. Harry had a little trouble getting his voice started when he said, "Yes, sir. Yes, it is."
The poster face turned a bit and seemed to sniff the air. "Invigorating," the creaky voice went on. "The air is absolutely heavy with possibilities. Don't you agree?"
"Well, I ... that is ... I guess I hadn't noticed," Harry managed to say.
The Swami's painted eyes focused sharply on Harry and he frowned. "Oh, but you must," he said sharply. "You can't afford not to notice. Possibilities are easily missed. Possibilities are ...
Just about then Harry's chin slipped off his hands with a jerk, he blinked, and the poster face was suddenly stiff and silent above the marble top of the washstand. Without taking his eyes off the Swami's face for an instant, Harry got to a sitting position, and then slowly stood up. But the face in the dark corner stayed flat and faded even when Harry climbed over some stacked-up boxes, leaned across the washstand, and ran his fingers over the faded dusty surface.
Harry went back to the rolled-up rug and sat down to think. That's when he decided the whole thing must have been a dream. Of course, it had seemed awfully real and there was the fact that Harry almost never went to sleep in the daytime; but what other answer could there be. He stretched out on the rug again just to see how it would be for sleeping and, sure enough, it was soft and comfortable, and there was something very drowsy about the warm and slightly stuffy attic air.
Harry breathed a sigh of relief. That was it, of course. He'd gone to sleep looking at the poster and was dreaming until his chin slipping off his hands woke him up. Right at that moment, Harry was positive he'd found the answer, but just the same he couldn't help turning around quickly to grab a sneaking glance at the poster just before he went out the attic door.
He was still thinking about the dream as he went looking for Mom so as to get the money and prescription for Miss Thurgood's medicine. He found her on her knees scrubbing the tub in the second-floor bathroom. The water splashing into the tub was making a lot of noise, so he just leaned against the door frame and waited, admiring the quick, efficient way Mom did the scrubbing. She did everything that way; fast, and with no waste motion. With a mother like that, and a father who had been a magician, with all the "hand is quicker than the eye" stuff, you'd think a guy would just naturally be well coordinated. You'd think he'd have extra good control of his hands and feet, instead of being the kind who usually couldn't make it to first base without falling all over himself. The kind who gets nicknamed things like Cement Hands, or Humpty Dumpty Harry.
Of course Mr. Brighton, who knew a lot about sports and things, said that Harry was big and strong, and once he quit growing so fast he'd probably stop being so clumsy. But it didn't look too hopeful. Here he was almost twelve years old, and things didn't seem to be improving very fast.
Mom sighed, sat back on her heels, and ran the back of her hand across her forehead. She turned off the water and stood up before she noticed Harry. "Well, hi!" she said. When she smiled, she didn't look so tired any more.
"Hi," Harry said. "I'm all through except going to the drugstore for Miss Thurgood."
"Oh, my goodness," Mom said, digging into her pocket for the money and prescription. "I'm glad you remembered. I was thinking about something else so hard I'd almost forgotten about it." As Harry started to leave, she went on. "I'm almost afraid to mention it, but you know what I've been thinking about? I've been wondering if maybe we'd finally be able to take that trip this summer. If we can just keep our steady boarders, and nothing expensive needs fixing, it looks as if we ought to be able to make it this time. At least for a week or two."
"Hey!" Harry said, forgetting all about everything else; gloomy moods and crazy dreams included, "That's great. Do you suppose we could go out in the country somewhere? Like on one of those farms or ranches that take boarders, sort of. What do they call those places?"
"I guess they're called guest ranches," Mom said. "We can look into it, I suppose, if you're sure that's what you want to do. I've heard those places are pretty expensive, but it won't hurt to inquire. Maybe we can find one that's not too expensive."
Harry made like a cowboy riding a horse and swinging a lasso over his head. "Yippee!" he yelled.
Mom laughed. "Now don't go getting your hopes up too high," she warned. "You know how quickly things can go wrong around here. We mustn't really count on it. But it does begin to look like a possibility."
Harry had started out the door but that turned him around with a jerk. "Did you say a ... possibility?" he asked.
As Harry got out his old bike for the trip to the drugstore he was thinking it was too bad Mom happened to use that particular phrase. And just when he'd gotten the whole thing nicely settled in his mind, too. Of course, he was still positive that it had all been a dream. But you couldn't help wondering about things like—possibilities!CHAPTER 2
The Medicine Mess
By the time Harry got to Brown's Drugs and Notions, he'd quit worrying about possibilities and was busy planning his two weeks on a guest ranch. In fact he was so busy he didn't even take time out to look over the selection of new funny books while he waited for Mr. Brown to fill the prescription.
Ordinarily, the funny book situation was the only good thing about having Miss Thurgood as a boarder. Mr. Brown was touchy about people who came in his store just to read the funny books. Sometimes he even made sarcastic comments in a loud voice about not running a lending library. But he didn't mind at all if an actual customer picked up something to browse through while he waited for a prescription to be filled. Miss Thurgood took just about enough medicine to keep Harry up-to-date on his favorite funny book characters.
But today he had other things to think about. For years Harry had wanted to live in the country. He had a favorite daydream about how he'd get a lot of money somehow—by winning a contest or getting a reward for some brave deed—and then he'd buy a ranch way out in the country. That way, he'd have the kind of life he wanted, and Mom wouldn't have to work so hard running a boarding house to make a living. Of course, two weeks wouldn't be as good as really living in the country, but it would be great while it lasted.
Excerpted from Black and Blue Magic by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Copyright © 2004 Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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