Read an Excerpt
Ghosts Beneath Our Feet
By Betty Ren Wright
Holiday HouseCopyright © 1984 Betty Ren Wright
All rights reserved.
The bus smelled of stale sandwiches and gasoline, the air-conditioning had failed two hours ago, and Katie Blaine felt better than she had in months. Milwaukee was behind them, and she, her mother, and her stepbrother had a long, healing summer ahead. We're going to be okay now, Katie told herself. In Newquay. Even the name sounded right, a good place in which to start over.
Her mother sat next to the window, her eyes closed. A bag of chocolate kisses lay on the magazine she'd been reading. Cautiously, Katie shifted the bag to her own lap and helped herself to three candies. The chocolates were just going to waste, melting in the sun. She crumpled up the silver wrappings and licked her fingers, her head down so no one would see.
"Don't you ever stop eating, kid?" Jay's words from across the aisle slapped Katie in the face. She turned to make sure her mother hadn't heard. Why did Jay have to be so nasty? After two years of sharing the same parents, the same apartment — the same life! — he still wouldn't miss a chance to insult her.
Annoyed with herself for blushing, Katie stuck out her tongue, but she was too late. Jay's shaggy blond head had bent again over his science-fiction paperback. He'd been reading ever since they left Milwaukee.
Think about something happy, Katie ordered herself. Think about Newquay. She pictured for the hundredth time what it would be like. There would be a town square — most little towns had a square, didn't they? — with tall trees and a library and a courthouse and a little white church and a general store. Maybe a candy store, too, with pink-cheeked ladies selling chocolates made from an old family recipe. And a fountain in the middle of the square. And a bandshell! Yes, there would definitely be a bandshell.
"Honestly, Kate!" Mrs. Blaine sat up and reached for the bag of candy. "I bought these in case we had a long wait between rest stops. I didn't expect you to stuff yourself! Do you know how many calories there are in just one chocolate?"
Katie sighed. She didn't want to know. "I've only had a few," she protested. "They're melting."
Mrs. Blaine twisted the top and dropped the sack to the floor. "Probably not fit to eat," she said. "Oh, my, it's so hot in here. And the heat makes me sleepy." With a sudden change of mood, she slipped an arm around Katie's shoulders and hugged her. "Not much longer, hon. When we get to Uncle Frank's, we'll have a good supper and relax. I bet it'll be cool in Newquay, at least at night. After all, we'll be four hundred miles north of Milwaukee."
"Does he live near the middle of town?" A red brick house with white shutters would be perfect. Or maybe a white house with pillars.
"Who knows? When he wrote asking us to come, it was the first time I'd heard from him in years. He must have been desperate for help, or he wouldn't have asked, I'm sure." Her mother took a tissue from her handbag and patted her forehead. "When I was your age, he used to come to Milwaukee on business once in a while, and he always stayed with us. Grandpa Traynor was his best friend. I remember that he was gentle and sweet in those days, and he brought me little presents. But you've heard all that before." Mrs. Blaine leaned back and closed her eyes. Her face sagged into its familiar sad expression. "So sleepy," she whispered, and almost at once her breathing became deep and regular. Ever since Katie's stepfather, Tom Blaine, had died eight months ago, her mother would often hurry off to sleep, as if eager to get away.
Feeling deserted, Katie looked around and saw that Jay had closed his book. "Jay?" She decided to forgive him for being mean about the chocolates. It was important to start out right when they arrived in Newquay. But he seemed lost in his thoughts. His straight nose and heavy brows reminded her of his father's face.
"Hey." She slid out of her seat and settled herself on Jay's armrest. "Did you finish the book?"
"Was it good?"
"Fair." For just a moment his expression softened. Maybe he guessed how hard she was trying.
"We're going to be there pretty soon. In Newquay."
"You know what? I have this very peculiar feeling that I've been to Newquay before. In another life, maybe. I know just what it's going to be like. Maybe it's because I've always wanted to live in a small town. Haven't you?"
Jay's blue eyes narrowed. "I've always wanted to stay in Milwaukee where I belong. I've never felt like racing off to the end of the earth just because some old guy I don't even know says he needs help. But then, no one asked what I wanted to do."
It would be easier if he'd shout instead of speaking with such icy calm. Katie could take care of herself in a shouting match. But he acted as if she wasn't important enough to fight with. He'd rather just lean back and wait for her to stop bothering him.
The fat man in the seat next to Jay looked as if he enjoyed listening to people be rude to each other. His smirk made Jay's coldness unbearable.
"Well, I don't care what you think!" Katie snapped. "I'm really glad we're going to be in a nice little town all summer, and I'm going to have lots of friends there. You could, too, if you gave people half a chance!" She swung back across the aisle into her own seat.
If only Tom Blaine were here right now ... but, of course, if Tom were alive they wouldn't be on their way to Newquay. Katie's mother wouldn't be thinking about a job; there would be no depressing memories to run away from. If Tom were alive, they'd be going on weekend trips to the Mississippi or to Green Lake this summer. They'd be swimming and fishing. Katie might be learning to water-ski. As long as Tom was alive they'd been a family, and there had been days and even weeks when Jay seemed to accept his new mother and sister. He'd teased Katie, the way other brothers teased their sisters, and they'd groaned at each other's jokes. But Tom's death left Jay lonely and bitter just as his mother's death had eight years before. "I don't need anybody," he'd told Katie when she tried to comfort him the day of the funeral. "Don't worry, I can take care of myself."
"What were you and Jay arguing about just now?" Her mother whispered the words without opening her eyes. Katie realized she hadn't been asleep after all.
"Poor kid, he's furious because he had to leave those unappetizing friends of his." She kept her voice very low. "I just hope he won't sulk all summer and upset Uncle Frank.
"Better use your comb," she went on. "We should be arriving in a few minutes." Mrs. Blaine smoothed back her own straight brown hair and adjusted the clasps that held it in a knot low on her neck.
Katie scrabbled through her shoulder bag for a comb, one eye on the scene flashing by the dusty windows. There was a tiny single-pump gas station, a supper club built of shiny yellow logs, and then a row of clapboard cabins set back under tall trees. Over and beyond the scattered buildings the northern Michigan forest loomed, as it had for many miles. Columns of white birch and aspen marched against dark evergreens. Purple, yellow, and orange wildflowers decked the roadside.
"It's really pretty," Katie said. "Don't you think it's pretty, Mom?"
Mrs. Blaine nodded. "I guess so. I'm a city girl myself. I doubt that I could get used to such wild, lonely country on a permanent basis. But I'm sure it will be fine for a couple of months."
"Sure, it will," Katie said. "It'll be terrific! You know what I think? I think it's going to be like living on a movie set. We'll get to know everybody in town, and we'll shop in the general store and take walks around the square and —"
She stopped as the bus made a lurching turn off the main highway and started up a sloping blacktop road. Small shingled houses were scattered along either side. Between cluttered yards were fields dotted with sheds and abandoned cars. A faded sign pointed a wooden finger ahead.
"'Newquay,'" Katie read. "We're finally here." Jay glowered at her, and the fat man next to him smirked again.
"At last," Mrs. Blaine said. And then she gasped, "Oh, dear!"
Katie looked out at gaping storefronts, fading signs, and crumbling sidewalks. Most of the rusty-looking, red-painted buildings appeared deserted; the few that were occupied had a dreary and desolate look. With a feeling close to panic, Katie peered across the aisle. More deserted buildings, including a couple that seemed close to collapse. The bus jolted from side to side on the narrow street, missing some of the worst potholes and shuddering through others. At last it stopped, and the front door wheezed open, letting in a blast of hot air.
The fat man was watching Katie's face. "Regular garden spot, ain't it?" he teased. "Not what you expected, huh? This old town's dead as a doornail — has been for years."
Katie was stunned. "Where's the square?" she whispered. "Where are the trees and the bandshell and the little white church? Oh, Mom, this can't be Newquay. It can't be!"
Mrs. Blaine patted Katie's arm. "Never mind," she said weakly. "So it isn't what you expected. Or what I expected, for that matter. What's the difference? We won't be here forever."
Katie stared at her. She wanted to say, "How can we begin our new life in a place like this? How can we start fresh in a town that's dead?" But she couldn't get out any words at all.CHAPTER 2
"What now?" Katie asked. They stood on the sidewalk, their suitcases at their feet, in an ovenlike heat that stole their energy and breath. The bus started up with a snort and a grumble.
"I suppose we'd better ask directions to Uncle Frank's house," Mrs. Blaine said finally. "Maybe in there. ..." She nodded toward the nearest storefront. Bus station was hand-lettered over a poster in the window, and next to it was a smaller sign: UNITED STATES POST OFFICE. The poster showed a bus zipping along beside water that had long ago faded to gray. "Jay, would you ...?"
He shrugged and started toward the door.
"I'll go, too," Katie said. Anything was better than standing outside, looking at Newquay.
A tiny middle-aged woman stood behind a counter sorting mail. In spite of primly waved hair and thick glasses, she looked like a little girl playing postmistress. Her eyes were bright with curiosity as she examined Katie and Jay.
"If you've come to pick up mail, you'll have to show identification," she announced. "I don't take anybody's word. This post office is just the same as the U.S. government." She waited, daring them to deny it.
"We're looking for Frank Pendarra's house," Jay said. "Do you know where he lives?"
The woman ignored the question. "You're the family, then," she said. "Come to take care of the poor soul. Well, it's easy to see the resemblance. You've got the Pendarra nose," she said, focusing her nearsighted gaze on Jay, "and you've got his eyes, missy."
"But we're not even —" Katie began.
"Didn't know Frank had any relatives left, till it got out that he sent for help. About time you got here, that's what I say. Poor soul is sick. Ornery, too. Bein' sick gets the old ones that way. My mother, now, she was the meanest —"
"Yes, ma'am," Jay said. "Can you tell us where Frank lives?"
"Of course I can." She sounded annoyed. "I can't do my job 'less I know where people live, can I? I certainly can tell you two are brother and sister. Can't miss it. I can spot a family likeness every time."
Jay made a queer choking sound, and Katie realized he was fighting laughter, as she was. Even though she wanted Jay for her brother, she couldn't pretend they looked alike. He was tall, skinny, and fair; she was shorter than most of her friends, and rounder, too, with dark brown hair.
"We can take Frank's mail to him," Jay suggested slyly. "If we can find his house, that is."
"That's easy enough. Just go down to the corner and then straight up the hill. Get to the top and keep going. Big and gray, that's the Pendarra place. He doesn't have any letters. You can tell him Mrs. Trewartha said hello and how-are-ye."
Katie bobbed her head. "Is there a bus going that way?" she asked. She was pretty sure she knew the answer, but she dreaded a long uphill walk with heavy suitcases.
"Bus?" Mrs. Trewartha repeated. "Can tell you're from the city, all right. The only bus Newquay ever sees is the one you folks just got out of. Wouldn't know what to do with a bus if we had one, I'm sure. Walking's good for you," she added.
Jay followed Katie out into the sun. Without a word he picked up two suitcases, and Katie took the third, leaving her mother the two shopping bags. Mrs. Blaine hurried after them. When they stopped again, beyond the dusty windows of the bus station — post office and grinned at each other, she stared at them in astonishment.
"What in the world ...?"
"The lady in the post office." Katie giggled. "She says she could tell Jay and I are brother and sister because we look so much alike."
"And we both look like our uncle Frank," Jay finished. His smile faded, as if he'd suddenly remembered how much he didn't want to be here. "Silly woman," he snorted and picked up the suitcases. He sounded disgusted, but there was a twitching at the corners of his mouth, as if the smile were struggling to return. Maybe things really will be different here, Katie told herself. Even if it's a dead town, like that awful man said.
They turned the corner and faced the steepest hill Katie had ever seen — a baby mountain, with a ragged sidewalk that gave way to patches of weeds every fifty feet or so. Old houses with drooping porches and sparsely curtained windows alternated with vacant lots full of buttercups and rubbish. The gravel road was red, as if the ground itself were rusty.
"This is iron country." Mrs. Blaine's explanation came in little puffs. "Or it used to be, before the mines were emptied and closed up. I suppose that's why the houses are red, too — with so much dust, it saves repainting them every couple of years."
Katie doubted that these houses had ever been repainted. Each step made her dream of pretty little picture-book Newquay more ridiculous. And it was so hot! Who would have thought it could get this warm in a town surrounded by tall green woods and only fifty miles or so from the deep waters of Lake Superior?
They trudged on. "I hope you have those directions right," Mrs. Blaine panted. "I couldn't climb another hill after this one."
"The whole stupid town's on one hill," Jay snapped. "So how could anybody make a mistake?"
"Oh, Jay, for goodness' sake —" Mrs. Blaine's voice was oddly thin. Katie glanced at her mother and saw her stagger. Her shoulders were bent under the weight of the overstuffed shopping bags.
"Are you okay, Mom?"
Abruptly, Mrs. Blaine sat down on the sidewalk.
"Mom!" Katie squeaked with alarm. She knelt and put an arm around her mother. "What's the matter with you?"
Mrs. Blaine leaned forward. "I'll — I'll be all right in a minute," she said. "It's just the heat ... and this terrible hill ... and everything."
Katie looked around frantically. "I'm going to get some water," she told Jay. "You stay here."
They had stopped in front of a narrow red house with a deep porch. The front door hung open. Katie dropped her suitcase and ran up the walk.
"Is anybody home? Please! Is someone here?"
There was a movement at the end of a dim hallway, and a girl appeared.
The girl was about Katie's age, tall and leggy. She wore blue jeans and a man's shirt, and the hair on one side of her head was piled high in fat sausage curls. The rest of it hung to her shoulders.
"What do you want?"
"My mother needs some water. She fainted — sort of. Out in front of your house."
The girl turned and disappeared. Katie went down the hall into a large, cluttered kitchen. The girl was at the sink filling a glass.
"You 'ere to look after Frank?" The cracked voice made Katie jump. A tiny old woman sat in a corner close to the huge gas range. She was dressed in black, and in spite of the heat she wore a scarf knotted tightly under her chin. Sparkling dark eyes peered out of a face as round and creased as a dried apple.
"Yes." Katie reached for the water the girl offered her.
Excerpted from Ghosts Beneath Our Feet by Betty Ren Wright. Copyright © 1984 Betty Ren Wright. Excerpted by permission of Holiday House.
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