The Ghost of Cutler Creek
By Cynthia DeFelice
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2004 Cynthia C. DeFelice
All rights reserved.
The whimpering grew louder and more desperate, then rose to a keening wail. Allie Nichols ran down the long, shadowy hallway, trying to reach the source of the sound. The sadness and hopelessness of it tore at her heart. She had to find out who was in such terrible misery. But it was so dark, so difficult to see! She followed the cries through countless twists and turns and found herself at a dead end.
She forced herself to stop and listen, to try to get her bearings. At first she couldn't hear anything but the rasp of her own breath, ragged from running. Then — there! A whimper, but fainter now than before, farther away. She had gone the wrong way!
Racing back, she followed the pitiful sound through the endless corridors. Sometimes she thought it was the cry of a baby; at other times she was sure it was someone older. The next moment it sounded like an animal or a bird. She desperately wanted to help, but first she had to find whoever — or whatever — it was.
Nearly weeping with exhaustion and frustration, she turned a corner, only to reach another dead end. The wail faded to a plaintive whimper and stopped. Now crying, Allie pounded the wall with her fist — and woke up.
She had been beating, not on a wall, but on her pillow. Uncurling the fingers of her fist, she sat up and wiped the tears from her cheeks. Her mind cleared and the foggy wisps of her dream receded, but she was left with a lingering feeling of sorrow.
Along with the sorrow was a sense of excitement — and dread. For Allie knew what the dream meant. Twice before she had wakened from urgent nightmares like this one. Both times the dreams had been messages from someone who wanted her help. Both times that someone had been a ghost.
* * *
When Allie went downstairs to breakfast the following morning, her mother was talking on the phone, a worried expression on her face. One look at her four-year-old brother, Michael, and Allie knew why. His eyes were red and puffy. He glanced up at Allie, sniffled, and exploded in a sneeze.
"Either it's a cold, or his allergies are suddenly acting up," Mrs. Nichols was saying into the phone. "Whichever it is, I'd better get him in to see Dr. Waheed. Could you cover the store for me today? Great. Thanks, Reggie. I'll call you later to see how you're doing. Okay. Thanks again. Bye."
Mrs. Nichols hung up. "Morning, Allie."
"Can you walk to school this morning?"
"I'm staying home today to take Mike to the doctor."
"I heard." Allie poured herself a bowl of cereal and added milk. Turning to her brother with a sympathetic smile, she said, "Mikey, you don't look so hot."
Michael made an attempt to smile back, but sneezed instead.
Mr. Nichols came into the kitchen, his briefcase in his hand. "Not feeling any better, Mike?" he asked.
Michael shook his head. Then he wrinkled his nose. "Something smells funny. Poopy."
Allie and her parents all sniffed the air.
"I don't smell anything," said Mrs. Nichols.
"Neither do I," said Allie's dad.
For a moment, Allie thought she did catch a whiff of something "poopy." But when she sniffed again, it was gone.
Allie and her parents looked at one another and shrugged.
"I've got to go," said Mr. Nichols. "Smooches all around." He gave Allie and her mother each a kiss. "Except for you, big guy," he said, giving Michael a pat on the head. "If you've got Stinky Nose, I don't want to catch it."
Allie laughed and got up from the table to get ready for school. She called her best friend, Dub Whitwell, to say she was walking, and that she'd meet him at the corner.
As soon as Dub showed up, she told him about her dream.
"Oh, boy," he said. "Here we go again. It sounds as if Allie Nichols, Ghost Magnet, is back in action."
In his voice Allie detected the same combination of fear and excitement she'd felt on awakening from the dream. She nodded, saying, "I think so, too." Then she asked, trying to sound casual, "You did say here we go again, right?"
"Of course," answered Dub. "Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss this for anything." He grinned and gave her a snappy salute. "Dub Whitwell, your Faithful but Clueless Companion, reporting for duty."
"What do you mean, clueless?" Allie protested.
"You're the one who attracts ghosts, Al," he said. "I can't see 'em or hear 'em — I just come along and get scared out of my wits."
Allie smiled. Dub had helped her enormously during her two previous ghostly adventures. He was the only other person who knew she saw and heard ghosts, if you didn't count Michael. And Allie didn't, really, because while Michael saw and heard them, he didn't understand that they were ghosts.
"So what now?" Dub asked. "We just wait to see what happens next?"
"I guess so," Allie answered. "There's nothing we can do until we know who the ghost is. And what it wants."
They were passing Luv'n' Pets, the local pet store. As usual, Allie stopped to look at the puppies in the front window. There were new ones every couple of weeks. The last batch of yellow furballs had been replaced with a litter of seven tiny brown-and-white furballs.
"Oooh, look how cute you are!" Allie crooned, sweet-talking the puppies through the plate glass. But this time she was distracted by an unpleasant tingle that ran through her body.
"Oh, Dub!" she cried. "I just had that — that feeling. He was back. Or she — or it. Anyway, the ghost!" Allie stood still, trying to focus with every fiber of her body. "It's gone now."
"Are you okay?" Dub asked.
Allie collected herself and nodded, but she was feeling a little shaky.
"They never just tell you what's going on, do they?" Dub said. "Every once in a while you get a clue, and you have to go from there."
"Yeah." Allie gave him a wry smile. "Ghosts are funny that way."
Dub glanced quickly at his watch. "We better get moving or we'll be late."
"Bye, puppies," Allie called as she and Dub started walking again. "Hey, speaking of puppies, I thought of something to give Mr. Henry and Hoover for an end-of-the-year present."
Mr. Henry was Allie and Dub's sixth-grade teacher. Hoover was his beloved golden retriever, and the class mascot. It was the next-to-the-last day of school, and, although excited about summer vacation, Allie couldn't bear to think that her days in Mr. Henry's classroom were coming to an end. He was without a doubt her favorite teacher in the world. She was going to miss him — and Hoover — terribly.
"Yeah?" said Dub. "What?"
"Remember Mr. Henry said the vet told him Hoover has to go on a diet? Well, a friend of Mom's made up a recipe for low-calorie, healthy dog biscuits, and Mom found a bone-shaped cookie cutter, so I'm baking some treats for Hoover. And I'm making a collar for Mr. Henry."
"Oh, he'll look terrific in that," said Dub. "Don't forget a matching leash."
"Very funny. I started it last night, and it's turning out pretty good. I'm making it out of red cord, and I'm sewing Hoover's name and phone number in black."
"So guy dogs can see them and call her up for dates?" Dub asked with a grin.
"Right," Allie answered. "Or, if she gets lost, whoever finds her can call Mr. Henry."
"Cool," said Dub.
"Want to come over and help me make the dog treats after school?"
When they walked into their classroom, Allie noticed a boy she had never seen before standing by Mr. Henry's desk. The bell rang, and all the kids found their seats, except for the boy, who continued standing.
"Everybody, I want you to meet L.J. Cutler," Mr. Henry announced. "He'll be with us for the rest of the school year." Here Mr. Henry stopped and smiled. "What's left of it, anyway."
The kids laughed, and Mr. Henry went on. "L.J. came to us all the way from Georgia, and I know you'll make him feel welcome."
Several kids, including Allie and Dub, called out, "Hi, L.J."
Allie heard Karen Laver mutter, "What kind of name is Eljay?"
Allie figured L and J were initials, standing for something else, probably a real name that L.J. didn't use for some reason. Sort of the way "Dub" was short for "double." Dub's real name was the same as his father's, Oliver James Whitwell. Luckily for Dub, his mom had nicknamed her son "Dub" to save him from being called Ollie or Junior.
As usual, Karen had kept her voice just soft enough so Mr. Henry couldn't hear her comment. Allie pretended she hadn't heard, either.
Mr. Henry turned to the new boy and said, "We're glad you're here, L.J. What brings you and your family to Seneca, New York?"
L.J. Cutler looked out from under a shock of tousled brown hair that fell across his eyes. He didn't smile, or look bashful or embarrassed, or do anything Allie might have expected from a new kid standing in front of a group of strangers who were curiously checking him out.
The room was quiet while everyone waited for L.J. to speak. In a low voice he muttered, "What do you want to know for?"
There was a moment of stunned silence. Then Mr. Henry said, "All right, L.J. I didn't mean to put you on the spot. Why don't you take that empty desk next to Allie. She'll be happy to show you the ropes. Won't you, Allie?"
"Sure," Allie answered automatically. But she wasn't sure at all. She wasn't sure she felt like talking to this strange, surly boy.
L.J. fell into the chair beside her, slid down, stuck his legs straight out in front of him, and folded his arms across his chest. Without looking at her, he said so softly only she could hear, "I don't need you or anybody else for a baby-sitter, so just back off."
For a second, Allie stared at him, dumbfounded. She couldn't believe he had just said something so downright rude. Then she grew angry. Who did he think he was?
"Fine with me," she said shortly, quickly looking away from him. She sat staring straight ahead, her heart racing, outrage at L.J.'s behavior making her pulse beat really fast.
At that moment, the skin on the back of her neck began to prickle, and her hands grew cold and clammy. In her head, the cries and whimpers from her dream echoed pitifully. Her ghost was back. What was it trying to tell her?
Allie could hardly think. It seemed that too much was happening at once. Then, recovering herself, she sent a mental message to the ghost: Would you hurry up and let me know who you are so I can help you?
She sent a second mental message, to L.J.: Back off yourself. I've got enough to worry about without baby-sitting you.
Allie barely heard a word of the book Mr. Henry was reading to the class that morning. So far, it was a great story, and it was building to an exciting conclusion, but between L.J. and the ghost, there was no way she could relax and listen.
She was almost afraid to look in L.J.'s direction. Actually, she didn't have to look; she could feel him beside her, a dark, threatening cloud at the edge of her vision.
Uh-oh. Mr. Henry must have asked a question about what he'd been reading, and was now waiting for her answer. She felt her face flush with embarrassment. But to her relief, Mr. Henry continued talking. "Would you please introduce L.J. to Mrs. DeMarsh?"
"What? Oh, sure," she said. She glanced at the clock, and realized that Mr. Henry must have announced that it was time for music.
The rest of the class began lining up at the door. Quickly, Allie looked at L.J. He was still sitting, as if deciding whether or not he wanted to go to music class. Finally he rose and, without a glance at Allie, sauntered over to join the line behind Dub. Allie followed.
"Hey, L.J.," said Dub in his friendly fashion.
Allie winced, and waited to see what L.J. would say. After his comment to her, she wondered what kind of response Dub was going to get.
L.J. gave no indication that Dub had even spoken.
With his chin up and his eyes narrowed, he stared toward the door. He wasn't looking at anything or anybody in particular, as far as Allie could tell. He acted as if he were alone, as if the rest of them weren't there.
Dub looked at her, shrugged, and mouthed the words "What's with him?"
Allie made a sympathetic face and shrugged back. The line of kids moved out into the hallway, and Mrs. DeMarsh ushered them into her room. When Allie introduced L.J., Mrs. DeMarsh welcomed him warmly. "But I'm afraid, L.J.," she said, "that this is both hello and goodbye."
She looked at the rest of the class and said sadly, "Today is your last music class at Seneca Heights School. If I think about it, I just might start to bawl. So let's sing instead. Why don't we do all our old favorites."
Turning back to L.J., she said, "We'll start with one of your favorites, L.J. Name it and we'll see if we know it."
L.J. shook his head and looked away.
Allie saw a flicker of surprise pass quickly across Mrs. DeMarsh's face. Allie thought she knew how her music teacher felt. L.J.'s attitude was definitely unsettling.
Allie watched him from the corner of her eye all through music class. He never said a word or sang a note.
Afterward, the class went to lunch. On the way down to the cafeteria, Allie was certain that L.J. was right behind her. As she passed through the line with her tray, she planned to introduce him to Mrs. Hobbs, the cafeteria lady. But when she turned to present L.J., he wasn't there.
Allie joined Dub and some of the other kids from her class at a table, and looked around. "Where's L.J.?" she asked.
Karen Laver said carelessly, "I don't know, and I really don't care. You can move to another table if you want to eat with him. I certainly don't."
For once, Allie agreed with Karen. But she wasn't going to say so. She stood up and scanned the lunchroom one more time, but L.J. was nowhere to be seen.
She shrugged and sat down. "Maybe he got sick or something," she said.
"He's probably smoking in the bathroom," said Karen. "Or trying to burn down the school. He seems like the psycho type."
Allie had been the target of Karen's cruel teasing many times herself, so she always stuck up for other victims. Now that Karen was picking on L.J., Allie felt a rush of sympathy for him. "Give him a break, Karen," she said. "It's his first day."
"What is he, your new boyfriend or something?" Karen taunted.
"That is ridiculous, Karen, and you know it!" Allie said. "I've barely said two words to the guy."
"Whatever," Karen said, sounding bored. "Anyway, it looks like he took off. And you were supposed to be watching out for him." She smiled sweetly, adding, "But don't worry. Mr. Henry won't blame you. You're his little pet, after all."
Allie turned away, refusing to get sucked into Karen's stupid games. To the other kids at the table she said, "What I keep wondering is why L.J. bothered coming for the last two days of school."
"Isn't there a law that says kids have to go to school?" Joey Fratto asked.
"I think so," Allie said. "But for the final two days? I mean, it's not like we're going to do any work. Mr. Henry will probably finish reading us the book this afternoon, and tomorrow is the party."
"It does seem dumb," Dub agreed. "That's probably why L.J. left. But you've got to admit, it takes guts to just walk out of school."
When L.J. didn't return to the room after lunch, Mr. Henry asked the class where he was. The kids all shook their heads, and Allie explained that no one had seen him since music class. Mr. Henry picked up the phone and called the office, a worried expression on his face. Then he finished reading the book, and the class spent the rest of the afternoon discussing it. L.J. never returned.
When Mr. Henry dismissed them, the kids reminded him that he had promised to bring Hoover to school for the last-day party.
"You don't think she'd let me leave without her tomorrow, do you?" Mr. Henry asked. "That dog never misses a party if she can help it."
As Allie walked past his desk, Mr. Henry said, "Allie, can you stay for a minute?"
"Sure." She glanced toward Dub and said, "Wait for me, okay?"
Mr. Henry smiled at her. "I was wondering if you might be available to doggy-sit Hoover next week."
Allie didn't even have to think about it. She loved the big shaggy dog, and had watched her once before when Mr. Henry had gone away for a weekend. "You bet!" she answered.
"Great! A friend of mine was supposed to teach a summer seminar at Iowa State, but her son is sick and she can't do it. She's asked me to fill in for her. I'd like to help her out, but only if I can make arrangements for Hoover. If you could take care of her, it would really put my mind at ease."
"I'd love to," Allie said. "Really."
"You're not going to camp or on vacation?"
"Nope. Not until August."
Mr. Henry held up one finger and shook it at her playfully. "And don't say you won't take any money, the way you did last time." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Ghost of Cutler Creek by Cynthia DeFelice. Copyright © 2004 Cynthia C. DeFelice. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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