Read an Excerpt
From childhood's hour I have not been As others were I have not seen As others saw.
Edgar Allen Poe
Spooking the terrible town on the hideous hill.
A crooked road leads to it from a black buzzing bog, climbing up in sharp, zigzagging turns over dizzying drops...to the summit, where endless headstones appear, vanishing into the distant gloom. Overgrown and askew, they lie broken against their gray neighbors trapped in a prison of old sorrows guarded by stone walls and iron spikes.
Beyond this ancient cemetery, the cracked avenues of Spooking begin. Dark and oppressive, lined with huge overhanging maples and oaks. In their shadow, crumbling residences loom, their former glory disfigured by broken shingles and peeling paint. Drafty old mansions, standing impossibly against the onslaught of time each sinister and terrible, they flash with menace whenever a storm rolls in.
So might have said someone from Darlington the modern, orderly city that sprawled out around Spooking Hill. So they might have said, that is, were the citizens of Darlington typically given to such observation, which they most certainly were not. And why should they be? They had no interest in exploring that creepy old town on the hill, living as they did in such a nice, tidy community; in happy little homes with gleaming roofs and colorful vinyl siding that never peeled. All identical and built in neat little rows, with freshly mowed lawns glittering green under the snicker-snacking of automated sprinkler systems. In Darlington there were no twisted trees, no tangled briar, no choking weeds. And no crow-infested graveyards full of crumbling old bones.
Which was exactly how the Darlings, as they were called, liked it.
But looking out from her curious round room, down at the ever-burning city lights, Joy Wells had a decidedly different view. For instance, did the Darlings ever consider how a wind howling across a drafty gable might make a roaring fire feel cozy? Or how rain pounding the tin roof above made you feel all the more snug tucked up under a thick pile of old blankets?
Joy doubted it. Darlings, in her experience, were no more given to reflection than observation.
True, Spooking was a bit rundown. The looming ornamented houses, no longer fashionable, were mostly left to fall in on themselves these days. The remainder of the town was no better, really. Once a lush landscaped arboretum, the rambling park off the Boulevard had become a neglected mess of tangled woods and cascading ponds dripping brown liquid into each other. The red brick library stood locked and lifeless, its vast collection of books gathering dust inside. The children's playground looked like the wreckage of some old bomber long shot out of the sky. Across from the playground, the high walls of Spooking Asylum blocked not only the view but even the sun most days. The asylum walls continued down toward the center of the town where a few shuttered little shops sat silent and empty.
Then there was the old cemetery, and that was about it.
But to Joy Wells, of Number 9 Ravenwood Avenue, it was everything. She closed her heavy curtains with a heavy sigh.
The house was cold as always and Joy could see her breath as she made her way down the staircase, which swept in wide ovals to the ground floor. She stopped on the landing for a moment, pressing her face to the glass of a small leaded window. Wiping away the fog, she saw with a thrill the outline of the graveyard in the distance, clearly lit under the moonlight. A stiff breeze shook the spidery trees of her street as dead leaves careened through the air and crashed back to earth.
It was a perfect Spooking night out there, all right.
The drawing room was a large round room, directly beneath Joy's bedroom. It was sparsely furnished with two wingback chairs, a small love seat, a pair of bridge lamps, and a worn old Persian rug. Joy noticed the white ash in the stone hearth with disappointment. How could she read down here without a bright roaring fire?
Mr. and Mrs. Wells sat quietly, each in their own small pools of light. Joy's little brother, Byron, lay on the floor in the shadows, engaged in high drama with a couple of action figures. Joy sat down grumpily on the love seat.
"Did you see this bill from the plumber?" Mr. Wells said suddenly, pulling at the point of his trimmed beard. "Look here he charges twice my hourly rate! Unbelievable!"
"That's awful, dear," said Mrs. Wells, turning the pages of a thick book.
"It took me six years to become a lawyer. Six years! How long does it take to graduate plumbing school, I wonder?"
"I haven't a clue," said Mrs. Wells. "Except that much of the time is surely spent with one's hand down a toilet."
From the hall came a loud shuddering sound.
"And listen to that the pipes are still banging!"
"Yes, dear." Mrs. Wells continued reading, her dark-framed glasses perched impossibly on the end of her nose, and her black hair tightly tied up in a bun. How Joy wished she had hair the same color. Instead of the unfathomable black of her mother, she was stuck with sunny blond, which hung perfectly straight in a cheerful honeyed sheet. It was an outrage.
Still, it suited Mrs. Wells, who was a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Wiskatempic University, a storied college standing on the banks of the north-flowing river of the same name. Like Spooking, the old campus had been swallowed up within the Municipality of Darlington. Despite the loss of its leafy grounds, the school still attracted a few students owing to a notable humanities program. Mrs. Wells specialized in existentialism, a subject she had been delighted to explain to her daughter meant the study of why one exists. The question and the noisy pipes had kept Joy awake many a night since.
Mr. Wells, on the other hand, was a lawyer with the firm Pennington, Plover, & Freep, a job that left him with too little time to properly match his socks, much less ponder his existence.
But even with two working professionals in their midst, the Wells family was not particularly wealthy, which was how they'd come to live in Spooking. According to Mrs. Wells, it was a frugal decision: Why would anyone buy a tiny little property in Darlington when they could buy an enormous house up in Spooking for the same price? Mr. Wells had countered that the additional expense in renovations and upkeep actually made Spooking twice as expensive in the end. However, in the ensuing debate between two towering intellects, the powers of argumentation of the philosopher proved to be superior to those of the lawyer especially since the philosopher involved was the immovable Mrs. Wells.
And so they moved to Spooking with a young Joy and baby Byron in tow. And big it was, their new house, perfect for the epic games of hide-and-seek to come. While Joy stood counting at the hearth in the drawing room, Byron could race down the hall to the white-tiled kitchen that looked like a butcher's shop, or across to the dining room with its long table and enormous chandelier. Or flee upstairs to hide behind the high library drapes or under the overstuffed chairs in the study. Or sneak into one of the bedrooms such as Joy's, at the very top of what on the outside resembled an evil wizard's tower with its steep scaled roof. Or his parents' room, with a huge four-poster bed to slip under, and cavernous wardrobes; or his own, which, although smaller, was cluttered beyond compare, offering many secret spots to squeeze into. He could even climb up to the arched attic that was the happy home to an extended family of pigeons; or, when feeling particularly brave, head down to the cool clamminess of the cellar, crammed full of the belongings of previous owners, stacked up in moldy cardboard boxes and teetering on rickety shelves.
Then there were the guest bedrooms, the pantry, the scullery, and endless closets...So big was the house, that often a whole hour passed before a frustrated Joy announced loudly that she wasn't playing anymore.
Mrs. Wells often bragged that they had all the space a family could ever want, yet were only a short drive from every convenience of the city. Mr. Wells mostly grumbled that he could never find time to fix up the place and could never save up enough to hire professional contractors especially since they all seemed to charge extra to work in Spooking.
"Aren't you going to light a fire?" Joy asked finally after her parents ignored her theatrical sighs.
Her parents looked up from their reading, startled.
"Tonight? I shouldn't think so," answered Mr. Wells. "It's warm enough in here," he explained, his words producing vaporous puffs.
"Joy, it is really time for bed," said Mrs. Wells. "And I mean straight to sleep no reading tonight. I don't know how you can get a proper rest, sitting up with all those scary stories. They must keep you lying awake all night terrified!"
"No," said Joy defensively. But it wasn't completely true.
The Compleat and Collected Works of E. A. Peugeot had been keeping Joy awake all night however, not from terror. In fact, she was mesmerized by the leather-bound volume. For the past month, as the downstairs clock tolled the early-morning hours, Joy delicately turned page after fragile page, poring over each word of every bizarre tale. But then her mother had caught her, when she noticed the light from Joy's bedside lamp leaking under the door to the hall.
The book had come to her by way of the Zott estate. Pennington, Plover, & Freep had given Joy's father the unenviable job of sifting through the dust-covered effects of Ms. Gertrude Zott in search of some sort of will. At over a hundred years old, Ms. Zott was Spooking's most venerable resident. Her final age was unknown, as it turned out that she had in fact died some years before being discovered still upright in her easy chair in a completely mummified state. On her lap sat an unfinished needlepoint of a duck in sunglasses drinking a cocktail at the beach.
For a week Mr. Wells endured both the lingering smell of death and the wheezing asthma brought on by the intense clouds of dust created upon disturbing any article. He then finally stumbled across the old woman's will. It said simply:
"I hereby bequeath my first edition copy of The Compleat and Collected Works of E. A. Peugeot to a spirited young Spooking lady with a taste for mystery, a thirst for adventure, and an eye for the inscrutable.
"The rest of it, including this house and all of my worldly possessions therein, please flatten with one of those giant balls on a chain."
Soon after, in accordance with her wishes, the building and its considerable contents were so destroyed. Mr. Wells promptly gave Joy the book which he had recovered from under a pile of celebrity magazines in Ms. Zott's downstairs bathroom and considered it a job ready for billing.
Joy, however, was completely bewildered. Why in the world would someone she hardly knew leave her a book? Her father's shrugging and stammering offered little in the way of explanation. But soon she had forgotten her initial suspicions, becoming utterly engrossed in the weird world living within the book's pages a curiously familiar world....
"How come Byron gets to stay up?" demanded Joy.
"Byron?" said Mrs. Wells. "Isn't he already in bed?"
"He's right there on the floor in front of you."
Mrs. Wells jumped in her seat. "Byron!" she cried, clutching her chest. "Can't you play less quietly?"
Byron scuttled away, his stocky little body slipping noiselessly under the loveseat where Joy sat.
"Both of you kisses and then bed," said Mr. Wells absently as he pored over more bills.
The children kissed their parents and headed upstairs. Byron sprinted ahead. His oversize round head sprouted his mother's dark hair, and his little ears stuck out a bit. Reaching the landing, he headed down the hall to his room. The ancient floor boards groaned and popped whenever anyone walked on them, but under Byron's slippered feet, they made not the slightest creak. He had a talent in that department, and it made him a formidable hide-and-seek opponent. Joy's room was dimly lit blue by the aquarium. As she entered, a large green bullfrog inside suddenly sat up on its hind legs and made a loud sound. Not quite like a dog, but not quite like a frog, either.
"No, Fizz, you've had enough food for today."
Fizz barked again.
"Bad frog!" scolded Joy. "Lie down!"
Fizz ran clumsily in circles, now yelping loudly.
"Oh, all right then!" Joy tossed him a crunchy dog treat in the shape of a bone. "You'll have to eat it in the dark, though," she said, switching off his lamp. Just as well, she thought. Fizz slobbering over a treat until it was soft enough to swallow was not something she wanted to watch. Why couldn't he just eat creepy-crawlies like every other frog?
Joy headed to the bathroom. She brushed her teeth vigorously, watching her mouth froth over in the bathroom mirror. Just like some creature, she thought, insane with hunger for human flesh. She gargled and spat, frowning at herself. Well, she didn't have a particularly mysterious hair color, but she had to admit to feeling somewhat satisfied with her eyes, which shone an eerie gray with tiny flecks of gold.
Back in her room, she quickly put on her pajamas and jumped under icy sheets. With the bedside light on and The Compleat and Collected Works propped up with her knees, she read for the thousandth time the graceful inscription in sepia ink:
"To my beloved A."
She closed the book, reached for a postmarked envelope on her bedside table, and dumped its contents on the blanket. Flushing with pride, she read again:
Dear Miss Joy Wells,
We would like to officially confirm receipt of your money order, and welcome you as a member of the Ethan Alvin Peugeot Society.
Please find enclosed our quarterly newsletter, a biography of Mr. Peugeot prepared by the Society, and a limited edition EAP Society mouse pad.
Richard Strang President and Treasurer, EAP Society
At the bottom, written with a leaky pen:
Mouse pad on back-order sorry!
The biography was a booklet made of folded photocopies stapled crookedly together. What it lacked in production values, it made up for in content, Joy thought. She flipped again to the picture of Peugeot one of the few that existed, so it said underneath. He sat bent forward in a stuffed chair, posing awkwardly, his hands clasped together on his lap, looking somehow like a bird on an unsteady perch. He wore a dark buttoned-up suit with a tightly knotted scarf and downcast mustache, his oiled black hair curled at the front and parted severely at the side.
He was handsome, Joy decided. Well, sort of. She stared at his sharp features, thrown into dramatic shadow by some unseen lamp. With an uneasy expression, Peugeot stared back imparting an eerie feeling that he was actually gazing right out of the photograph itself. His dark eyes seemed to look ever so slightly over her shoulder, at something lurking behind her. It gave her the creeps, a feeling that was most welcome.
"Put the light out now," said the disembodied head of Mrs. Wells in the bedroom doorway, causing Joy to throw down the booklet in fright. "I don't want to hear the bus honking for you tomorrow because you've overslept again."
"Okay, okay," answered Joy, switching off the lamp. "Good night, Mom."
"Good night, dear."
The door clunked shut.
Joy lay in the blackness, listening to the floor boards groan as her mother tramped down the hall. The toilet flushed. She heard her mother talking softly, her father's wheezy cough. Then it was silent again. Except for the wind, that is, and the sound of something scraping against the side of the house.
A branch perhaps? Or something else. Something that wanted in....
She threw off the blankets and crept to the window to peer into the night. It was now stormy outside, the lights of Darlington vanished behind a boiling mist. She scanned the inky darkness along the side of the house then spotted the source of the ceaseless scraping. It was only a tree, she confirmed. Oh well.
Tiptoeing across the chilly floor, Joy kicked the rug up against the bottom of the door, then quickly jumped back in bed. She put the light back on and opened the book where the length of red ribbon marked the page she had left off.
"The Terrible Town on the Hideous Hill."
Her favorite story. How much the town reminded her of Spooking!
And whether it was due to the foreknowledge of the horror to come or just her icy feet, Joy shivered deliciously.
Copyright © 2008 by P. J. Bracegirdle
Seen through the heavy rain pouring across the windshield, the old shop swayed back and forth as if alive. As if in anguish, bewailing its abandoned state, pleading for someone anyone to flick on the lights and fire up its boiler, to begin the dirty chore of wiping away a decade of grime from its front window.
The rivulets of rain parted and the shop's pitted sign became momentarily distinct:
Beneath that, another sign:
The man at the wheel stared, face blank, as memories played to the sound of the idling engine. He saw himself standing on the step in rubber boots, a shovel over his shoulder, grinning as he inhaled the sweet scents of autumnal decay. He heard the sound of his father gently hammering a fret in place with a mallet. Above he saw his mother, a ghost in the window, waving him off to work.
Then the vision disappeared, and all that remained was the filthy, dilapidated shop. He clenched his teeth. How he now hated the place and its cramped little second-floor apartment. It needed to be put out of its misery.
The car growled impatiently a low, throaty noise befitting the huge engine that surely lurked under such an enormous hood. The man put the black car into drive and made a U-turn. The thick tires hissed on the slick road and the chromed grill shone like a bared set of teeth. He headed a short way back the way he had come, pulling onto the muddy patch in front of the cemetery gates.
The car stopped growling. The man got out, sheltered from the rain under a wide black umbrella. The galoshes protecting his shiny shoes sank in the mud as he entered.
This time, he needed no fleeting visions of yesteryear. Everything was just as it always was, the same old ghosts rising up almost visibly from their graves. In their familiar company he recalled all the wasted hours, blistering his hands and breaking his back within these long stone walls. Tending and fussing over the horror of a place like it was some sort of royal garden. Living without ambition, up to his waist in muck and digging himself in deeper. How foolish he'd been.
But no longer, he told himself. Today he strode the avenues of the dead in a suit and tie.
He recalled his conversation with the grave-digger down in Darlington a kid really, with a pierced eyebrow, busy scooping enormous clods of earth with a backhoe. He gave the grave-digger a good story, that he was a nephew wanting to pay his respects to his beloved Uncle Ludwig, except his crazy old aunt wouldn't tell him where her husband was buried. Any chance he knew where to find him?
"Yeah, but the dude your uncle, I mean went in up the hill in that creepy old graveyard," he had answered. "Man, I even had to dig the hole with a shovel 'cuz I couldn't get this stupid thing in," he added, slapping a hand loudly against the frame of the backhoe. "Anyway, he's buried pretty much right in the middle, by some big stone angel swinging a sword. You can't miss it, dude," the grave-digger said finally, before popping his blaring headphones back on.
"Thanks, dude," the man said, smirking as the backhoe roared to life.
Now, standing in the graveyard, he looked up at the statue the Avenging Angel drenched and dark, its cheeks streaming with tears as it wound up to smite him with its heavy sword.
The man looked away. To the left, he spotted a small polished granite stone standing out of place among the ancient markers. There it was, the name he sought, chiseled simply.
He wrote it carefully in a little leather notebook, the streaming umbrella resting unsteadily on his head.
CHERISHED HUSBAND, it said underneath.
The old woman, he remembered.
He felt a flash of anger. He had had enough of this game playing. Well, one down, he thought, one to go. He turned to leave.
Another headstone caught his attention.
Here she was, finally, alone for eternity. He gasped.
"Your father," she'd cried down the phone. "He's gone, Octavio, and this time it's for good!"
He stood there, watching raindrops bounce off the headstone, ashamed of himself. A failure, that's what he was, a failure of a son. He couldn't have saved her from being alone in the grave, but maybe he could have made her a little less lonely at the end of her poor life.
His father, however, no one could have saved. Not from his cursed blood.
The same blood that coursed through his own veins, he knew. At the thought, he felt a tingling feeling in his fingertips. He raised one hand in front of his face and stared hard. It looked solid enough, he thought. Probably just numbness from gripping the umbrella too tightly.
But he had to get out of there the place wasn't good for his nerves. He weaved without sympathy through the gray markers of other long-lost loved ones until he arrived back at the cemetery gates.
The black car started up angrily and then spun out toward the road. There was a sudden blast of a horn, terrifyingly close. The tires screeched as he hit the brakes.
His head slammed against the steering wheel, hard enough to honk back at the bright yellow blur roaring by. It was a school bus, full of children, their round faces pressed up against the windows above him. He swore, rubbing the swelling egg above his eyebrow, as the bus careened down toward Darlington.
How he hated this hill, he raged to himself as he drove off.
Every day, the children of Spooking rode the bus past the cemetery, down the hill to school in Darlington. And every day, they received the same rousing welcome.
"THE GHOULS ON THE BUS GO ROUND AND ROUND, ROUND AND ROUND, ROUND AND ROUND. THE GHOULS ON THE BUS GO ROUND AND ROUND, ALL OVER TOWN!"
It was a tradition Joy had endured since her first day at Winsome Elementary. Six years later, it showed no signs of abating. With an evil hiss the bus would come to a stop, pitching the kids of Spooking forward in their seats as pudgy fists pounded the windows and fat faces bobbed up screaming. The door would then fold open violently.
Burdened by school bags and lunch boxes, the Spookys would then march straight through the wall of taunts and abuse into school. There, hopelessly outnumbered, they did their best not to draw any more attention to themselves than necessary.
And so it had gone that morning as Joy sat down at her desk an old wooden one, carved and chipped over countless semesters, with a little round hole at the top right where a bottle of ink used to go. A desk that was riddled with secrets, Joy decided, as she spent long afternoons deciphering the puzzle of scribbles on its surface. For instance, did Edith really love Ezra? Or was it just some cruel torment? Perhaps the answer lay in that illegible blob of smudged marker....
The others' desks in the class were new, each with steel legs and a Formica top that had an almost supernatural ability to destroy the tip of any pen foolish enough to mark on it. Exactly how her old desk had ended up there among them was a mystery. But she was fond of it, even grateful that it had been forced on her the first day of school by the sharp elbows of the other children.
Joy yawned the teacher was late. She looked up at the familiar poster of an old, crazy-haired man with his tongue sticking out. "Imagination is more important than knowledge," it said underneath. The man was Albert Einstein, Joy knew, the big genius, who even Mrs. Wells reluctantly acknowledged was smarter than your average logical positivist.
The teacher came in, laying her coat on her desk. "Sorry I'm late! Children, how are we today?"
"GREAT, MISS KEENER!" answered the class in a single exuberant voice.
Except for Joy, that is, who pretended to cough, like she did every morning. Coughed, or sneezed, or fetched a pencil that just happened to roll onto the floor....
"Terrific! Is everyone excited to continue with the book reports today?"
"YEAH!" shouted the class.
"Wow! You sound like you all had a great breakfast!" she remarked, laughing.
Miss Keener had a thing about breakfasts. If you didn't eat a proper one, not only were you unable to concentrate in class but you were also much more likely to end up in prison later, possibly on death row. An unbalanced lunch, meanwhile, foreshadowed not only brittle-bone syndrome but a career in the toilet-cleaning trade, Joy had been informed.
"Okay, let me pull a name...." Miss Keener picked up a large top hat and stirred the contents. "I do hope Mr. Fluffs didn't get in and eat any of them!"
Mr. Fluffs was the class rabbit. Using the hat, Miss Keener was able to make him vanish into thin air. It was a good trick but hardly the equal of Mr. Fluffs's own magic act, wherein he disappeared into the shredded newspaper of his cage for an entire week before reappearing with yet another disgusting eye infection.
"Abracadabra! Abracadoo! Who's going next? Who is it? Who?"
Please don't pick my name, thought Joy. Please.
Joy knew such a pathetic attempt to alter the course of fate was pointless her name was in there somewhere, and Miss Keener wouldn't stop fishing for it until the hat was empty of everything save a few crusty flakes from Mr. Fluff's eye. But she couldn't help herself.
Miss Keener read from a small piece of paper. "Tyler!" A couple of chimpanzee-like whoops came from the back of class.
"I'm ready, Miss," said Tyler, swaggering up to the blackboard, where he cleared his throat theatrically. "For this report, I decided to choose a really famous story that most everybody knows."
"Great," purred Miss Keener. "Let's hear about it."
"It's based on the TV show Ultradroids." Upon hearing the title, a few boys started humming something that Joy guessed was the Ultradroids theme song. "Take out the trash, Ultradroid captains'" yelled Tyler, striking an action pose. The class erupted into laughter.
"Now settle down, everyone," said Miss Keener mildly. "Okay, Ultradroids cool," she said, snapping her fingers and bobbing her head to show she was down with it. Joy cringed. "Go on, Tyler."
"Yeah, so it's a wicked show as everybody who lives on this planet knows. And this is the book version." Tyler held a copy up. The cover featured a gigantic robot bristling with missiles in a similar pose to the one Tyler had struck moments before. "Well, actually, there's like twenty-eight books or something. But this one is Number 7: The Destruction of Homeworld."
Tyler looked at his sheet. "There's no author listed, so I left that part blank. What's next? Oh yeah, the story.
"So the Ultradroids are returning from fighting the Legion of the Overlord again, but instead of their home planet, they see this cloud of broken-up rocks...."
Tyler began outlining the major plot points. They involved his crawling around on all fours while firing barrage after barrage of imaginary missiles from his hands, feet, back, and even his eyes in one dramatic instance. The resulting explosions left a fine mist of saliva swirling in front of the class, making Joy once again thankful that she sat near the back.
"So their planet wasn't really destroyed," Tyler concluded, wiping his chin. "It was all a dream Commander Slate had when he was unconscious after his Ultradroid was hit by a pulse rocket." He let loose a final, incredible explosion of spittle. "But everything was actually okay the whole time! So if you read it yourself, don't worry, because everything works out in the end. Thank you."
There was loud applause as Tyler took a bow. Joy marveled at how Tyler's spoiling the ending made The Destruction of Homeworld an even less likely read.
"Thank you, Tyler," said Miss Keener. "I can see you really enjoyed reading that book! Wouldn't you say that reading about Ultradroids was a better experience than just watching Ultradroids on television?"
Tyler shrugged. "Not really, Miss Keener. It took me a week to read the book, but I can watch a whole episode in just a half hour. Television is a much more efficient way to enjoy Ultradroids, I think."
"Well, that's certainly a valid point, Tyler," said Miss Keener. "Thank you you may take your seat. Now allakazam, allakazoo. Who's going next, who, who?" Miss Keener drew another name. "Cassandra!"
Joy decided to tune out Cassandra's book report, which not surprisingly involved a pale young lady with a secret, a troublesome pony, and a handsome farmhand. She began thinking about last night, and how she'd woken to more scratching sounds outside. This time, however, there was no wind and she could see from her bed that the trees weren't moving. So she'd crept to the window to scan the shadows of the front lawn just in time to get a glimpse of something bolting away.
Unfortunately, in the morning she discovered that a particularly deep sleep had left her memory a bit fuzzy, and she was now unsure exactly what she'd seen. So, as Cassandra droned on in the background, Joy began clearing her mind of all thoughts until the image became clear again. The results she excitedly sketched in the margin of her notebook.
But it just didn't look right. Somehow it looked less like some monster and more like an overweight cat.
"Joy," said Miss Keener.
Joy dropped her pencil. She looked up, startled, and saw Miss Keener with the magic hat on her lap, holding up a slip of paper.
"Are you ready to do your book report, Joy?" asked Miss Keener.
Joy nodded. Just get it over with, she thought. She quickly collected her folder of papers and rushed up to the blackboard.
"For my report," she began, trembling slightly as she addressed the class, "I chose a story called 'The Bawl of the Bog Fiend.'"
There were a couple of snickers.
"That's 'bawl,' with a w it's another word for 'cry,'" she explained. "Anyway, the story was written by Ethan Alvin Peugeot, who lived over a hundred years ago. E. A. Peugeot wrote many stories, poems, and essays, and is considered one of the greatest contributors to suspense and horror literature of all time. 'The Bawl of the Bog Fiend' is the first story where we meet Peugeot's best-known character, paranormal investigator Dr. Lyndon Ingram."
Joy opened the stapled booklet from the EAP Society, which now had several paragraphs delicately underlined in pencil.
"Interestingly, Mr. Peugeot is believed to have lived somewhere in this area near Darlington," she added spontaneously, "although of course it didn't exist back then. Exactly where he lived has always been a cause for much speculation," she said, referring to the EAP Society biography.
"You see, Mr. Peugeot was a very mysterious person. He lived under false names and wore disguises. And there were all sorts of crazy rumors about him." Joy read out: 'There are even people to this day who believe that his supernatural stories were in some or all part true accounts of his extraordinary life.'
"He ultimately vanished from the face of the earth, never to be seen again."
Joy glanced up. The class was listening intently.
"This is perhaps the greatest mystery of all," she continued, "As the story goes, Mr. Peugeot only appeared at his publisher's offices once a year, around October, when he would drop off new manuscripts and get paid before disappearing again.
"Then one year he did not show up. The publisher finally hired a private detective to go look for him. A month later, the detective sent a telegram to the publisher's office.
"It said: found out what happened to eap stop getting train back tonight stop," she read out dramatically. "But the detective never returned he, too, vanished without a trace.
"The only clue was this final telegram. But no one was even sure where it was sent from, as the receiving office noted it with only four letters: SPKG."
"SPKG?" repeated Miss Keener.
"It was shorthand," explained Joy. "For the place where the telegram was sent."
The class was dead silent.
"Well?" asked Miss Keener. "Did anyone ever figure it out?"
"No," replied Joy. "I mean, not until I did." Her voice rose in triumph. "It was short for Spooking!"
Copyright © 2008 by P. J. Bracegirdle