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Disasters befall the Blossom family as Pap falls into a dumpster and can't get out, Junior tries desperately to make a success of his secret invention, and Vern dreads letting a new friend meet his unusual family.
The Green Phantom
Junior stood in the doorway of the barn. All morning he had been working on his latest invention, and no one in the family had shown the slightest interest. At one point he had even put up a sign that said KEEP OUT—SECRET WORK GOING ON INSIDE, and still no one had tried to come in.
Junior shaded his eyes from the August sun and scanned the yard. It was as empty as it had been the last three times he came out.
The truck was gone, so Junior knew that Pap and Mud were off on their can-collecting rounds. Every Monday they went out and got cans from Dumpsters and picnic areas. Pap sold the cans for five cents apiece. Sometimes they didn't get back until time for supper.
From the field behind the barn, Junior could hear the sounds of hooves on dry, packed earth—Sandy Boy. His sister, Maggie, was learning trick 1 riding from their mom. This had been going on for two weeks, and neither one of them cared about anything but becoming the first mother-daughter trick-riding team in the history of rodeo. They certainly didn't care about his invention.
Junior knew where everyone in the family was but his brother, Vern. Vern went off somewhere every single afternoon and wouldn't tell anybody where he went.
Junior sighed. He turned and walked slowly back into the empty barn. It seemed to him that the family had separated, pulled apart like a ripe peach, and he had been dropped to the ground like the pit.
The thought was so sad it brought tears to his eyes. He brushed them away, leaving dirty streaks on his cheeks.
The sight of his invention perked him up. This was going to be the biggest, the best, the most spectacular. His other inventions—his wings and his coyote trap—were nothing in comparison. This invention was so great that he got a patriotic feeling every time he looked at it.
And a lot of equipment had gone into this one. Junior had had to make a list for the first time in his life. He could say the list by heart now.
Patches for the air mattresses
Day-Glo paint (green)
After he had made the list he had written a word up in the top corner of the page, and then he had folded the corner down as if he were marking a page in a book. That was because this word was the secret ingredient, and if anybody saw what the secret ingredient was, they might be able to guess the invention.
Junior heard a noise outside, and he darted to the barn door. A bicycle had just turned onto their road. Maybe Vern was coming back early.
Junior raised his hand to shield his eyes. No, it was Ralphie pedaling down the hill.
Junior was not sure whether he was glad to see Ralphie or not. It all depended on what mood Ralphie was in. Junior left the door slightly open behind him so Ralphie could catch a glimpse of the invention, which Junior had now given a name—the Green Phantom.
Junior had spent the last hour blowing up the Green Phantom with a bicycle pump. This was so that everyone could get the full effect of the Phantom's grandeur. Some of the air was leaking out now, however, and if someone didn't see it soon, the grandeur would be completely gone. Ralphie was better than nobody.
Junior pulled down his shirt as Ralphie got closer. He decided he would tell Ralphie the name of the invention, but he would not tell him what it was unless Ralphie absolutely insisted and promised not to—
Ralphie stopped his bicycle by pedaling backward. He balanced for a moment beside Junior. Then he looked worried and said, "There's something on your head, Junior."
Instantly distracted, Junior brushed his hand over his head. "What? What is it?"
Ralphie said, "Hair."
Junior knew then that Ralphie was not going to be in a helpful mood. Still he stepped sideways so Ralphie could read his sign. Surely when Ralphie saw the words SECRET WORK GOING ON INSIDE, he would want to know what the secret work was.
Ralphie said, "Is Maggie around?"
"She's down at the field with Mom. She's learning trick riding." He turned back to his sign. "Is the word secret spelled right?" he asked. "Secret, you know, like something nobody can see."
"Secret is, but work's spelled with a u—w-U-rk."
"It is not. We had that word in spelling. It's—"
Ralphie looked bored. "Which field?"
Junior shoved the barn door all the way open, thereby revealing his secret invention for the first time to the public eye. It was, to Junior, like the moment when an artist pulls a sheet off his masterpiece.
"You are probably wondering what that is," he said to Ralphie.
"Nope," Ralphie answered.
"All right!" Junior was getting desperate. "I'll tell you its name, but not what it is. Its name is—"
Ralphie pushed off, and Junior's shoulders sagged as he watched Ralphie disappear around the barn.
Junior was once again alone. He went back into the barn. Now, for the first time, when he looked at his invention he did not get that patriotic feeling. The Phantom seemed to have shrunk.
Junior was instantly ashamed of himself. He told himself that nothing—not even the Statue of Liberty, for example, would look like much lying on the floor of a barn, particularly if the air was leaking out.
But, he went on, fill the Statue of Liberty with air and set it out on an island, and fill the Green Phantom and put it in the sky! Again patriotism flooded Junior's body.
From the field behind the barn came a sharp cry from his sister as she fell off Sandy Boy. "Did you hurt yourself, Maggie?" her mother called.
"You want to rest awhile or keep going?"
"That's my girl."
Junior heard Ralphie yell, "Hey, can I come down?"
"Yes!" Maggie answered. "I got something to show you!"
Now, Junior thought, it was going to be Maggie and Sandy Boy who were going to impress Ralphie, not him and the Phantom. And Maggie was impressive hanging off Sandy Boy upside down. Nobody could deny that. She was impressive even in her everyday clothes. When she got in white satin and spangles, she would be beautiful, but not as beautiful as ... His eyes turned to the Green Phantom. He didn't need to finish the sentence.
"Just wait," he said to the empty afternoon. "I'll show them something really impressive. I'll show the whole wide world."
To raise his spirits he began a new train of thought. Maybe at this very moment Pap was on his way home. Maybe Vern was too. Maybe Ralphie had told Maggie and his Mom about the secret work and they were rushing up the hill. Maybe everyone would arrive at the exact same moment and get to see the Green Phantom at the exact same time.
Junior couldn't help himself. He smiled.CHAPTER 2
In the Dumpster
Pap was not on his way home. He was five miles away, standing in front of a garbage Dumpster. His dog, Mud, was at his side. Both of them were listening.
"Something's alive in there, Mud," Pap said.
Mud didn't need to be told. He had heard the faint scratching noises in the Dumpster as soon as Pap had turned off the ignition of the truck.
He had jumped out of the window like an arrow. He was now staring at the Dumpster as intently as if he were trying to see through the metal. One front paw was raised. Mud's father had been a pointer.
"Didn't sound like a rat," Pap went on. "What do you think it was, Mud? Couldn't be a skunk or we'd smell it."
Mud whined. His body trembled with excitement.
"What could it be?" Pap paused. He raised his voice. "Possum?"
The word possum was always Pap's invitation to attack. Like, if Pap saw a hole in the ground, he'd point the toe of his boot at it and say, "What's down there, Mud?" And Mud would wait and listen. Then Pap would say, "Possum?" And Mud would know to start digging.
So when Mud heard Pap say, "Possum," at the Dumpster, he put his feet up on the Dumpster and began to dig at the metal. His high excited barks rang through the empty parking lot.
That was exactly what Pap had expected Mud to do. He would have been disappointed if Mud had done anything else. However, now that he and Mud had had their little fun, he wanted to find out what was in the Dumpster. He patted Mud on the head, smoothed the fur on his forehead.
"That's enough, Mud. Barking ain't going to do you any good. It ain't going to help whatever's in the Dumpster either. Hush up and let's see if you scared it away."
Mud stopped barking and planted his paws on the Dumpster, but he could not stop his high excited whine. He had caught an animal smell, and he knew he was on the track of something.
Pap listened. The only sound from the Dumpster was the drone of flies. Pap waited. Then, suddenly, he kicked the side of the Dumpster with his boot. There was a frightened yelp from inside.
"Oh, I was afraid of that," Pap said. He shook his head sadly.
Mud barked again. He had mistaken Pap's kick for another signal to attack. He began leaping up, trying to jump over the side of the Dumpster.
Again Pap put his hand on Mud's head and smoothed his brow. "Calm down, calm down. It sounds like to me that one of your brothers is in there. I think it's a pup, Mud. I'm going to get my ladder."
Pap had an aluminum folding ladder that he kept in the back of the truck for emergencies like this one. "Yessir, I am afraid it is a pup, Mud." He opened the ladder and set it on the ground. "I don't like to think that somebody in this world of ours would be mean enough to throw a puppy in a Dumpster like he was trash, but there's only one way to find out."
As Pap put his foot on the first rung of the ladder, he wished for Vern. Vern was always the one to go up the ladder, to go into a Dumpster, if necessary. Where was Vern anyway? Pap wondered. Vern had now missed two can-collection Mondays in a row.
"Catch me if I fall, Mud." Mud wagged his tail, and Pap went up another step. He held on to the ladder with one hand, the Dumpster with the other. The ladder trembled beneath his weight.
Mud came over to the ladder and pawed the bottom rung. "No, no, Mud, you wait down there."
Pap knew Mud wanted to climb into the Dumpster with him. Mud could climb wooden ladders, but his feet slid on aluminum. One time when Pap was still able to patch the roof, he had gone up the wooden extension ladder, and when he looked back, Mud was right behind him. Mud would have beat Pap to the top if he could have passed him.
"You can't come with me today. I'll have to do the climbing for both of us."
Pap peered into the Dumpster. There was not much garbage—two brown sacks and a lot of loose stuff. He knew the puppy was in the far corner—that's where the yelp had come from—but he had to look hard to spot him.
The puppy had tried to hide in the garbage. Only his head was visible, but Pap figured that if the rest of the puppy was as miserable-looking as the head, the pup was in some trouble.
"Our fears were correct, Mud. Some miserable excuse for a person has put a puppy in here, and no telling how long he's been without food and water."
He snapped his fingers and whistled. Mud whined at the bottom of the ladder and scratched the bottom rung. "Not you," Pap told him over his shoulder.
He leaned into the Dumpster again. "Come on, boy, come on over here. I'm not going to hurt you."
The dog cringed in the far corner. His whole body was trembling. He tried to squirm deeper into the garbage. "Come on, boy, come on." Deep in the trash, the puppy's tail wagged with feeble hope.
"Oh, he ain't going to come, Mud. That's bad news. I got to go in after him."
Pap hated to go into a Dumpster. He never minded before his knees gave out, but Pap knew that a man with bad knees had no business in a Dumpster. Still, once Pap had seen the skinny little brown-and-white-spotted puppy down there in the garbage, cringing with fear and yet wagging his tail with hope, he had no choice.
"There ain't enough garbage for me to climb out on, Mud, so I'm going to have to take the ladder over the top with me." Pap had one foot over the edge of the Dumpster now. "This is a pitiful pup, just skin and bones. And he's got ticks on him, I can see them from here."
He had one foot on the ladder and one over the Dumpster. The position didn't feel right to Pap. "This ain't going to work, Mud," he said, but he was really talking to himself, working it out as he went. "My other leg's better than this one. Well, anyway, this leg ain't going no higher. That's for sure." He struggled with the knee.
"I'll put that one back down, and then I'll put this one over—No, Mud, it just plain ain't going to work. I'm going to have to go home for Junior or Vern. I'm coming down."
At that moment, as his foot came over the top of the Dumpster, he lost his balance. He pitched forward, leaning over the Dumpster on his stomach, teetering on the edge. His foot that had been on the top of the ladder, kicked the ladder away. There was a yelp of pain from Mud.
Pap hung on the edge of the Dumpster for thirty long, painful seconds. He was more in the Dumpster than out, and he kicked with his feet, and tossed his head back, trying to throw his weight the other way. His whole body had become a terrible, awkward see-saw.
If he had to fall, which he knew he did, he wanted to fall to the ground rather than into the Dumpster.
It was a losing battle. Pap knew it, and he looked down into the Dumpster to see where he was going to land. That was bad. The bags of garbage were on the far side, just loose trash lay beneath him.
He made one last struggle to slide backward to the ground, but he felt himself slipping the other way. His long yell of fright rang out and then echoed in the Dumpster. There was a heavy thud, and silence.
Mud had run under the truck when the ladder struck him in the head. The ladder had hit him over the left eye, and the eye was bleeding. He blinked rapidly to clear it.
With his good eye, he looked at the place where Pap's old boots had disappeared. His brow was wrinkled. His ears were flat against his head.
After a moment Mud crawled out from under the truck. He walked toward the Dumpster, cautiously circling the ladder. His tail was between his legs. His left eye was closed.
He barked once. There was no answer. Mud pawed the Dumpster. He barked again.
This time when there was no answer, Mud began to whine. He moved around the parking lot in an uneven circle, whining and pausing occasionally to look at the Dumpster.
Finally, Mud crawled under the truck. He lay down. Then he licked his front paw and began to draw it over his swollen, wounded eye.CHAPTER 3
The BB Gun Friend
Vern was not on his way home either. He was one mile down the road at his friend Michael's house, and he was jumping up and down on bedsprings. He and Michael had pulled the bedsprings out from the storage shed to use for a trampoline. This had been Vern's idea.
"Let me have a turn," Michael said at last.
"Sure," Vern said quickly.
Vern bounced three more times, pretending he was having more fun than he was. Then he leapt off the springs and made a solid landing in the dust, arms out to his sides. It was, he thought, the way gymnasts landed after a perfect routine. He glanced at Michael to see if he was impressed. He did not appear to be. "Your turn," he said.
Vern sat with his back against the oak tree while Michael bounced up and down for a while. "It's more fun if you do tricks," Vern called.
Michael tried a sit-bounce without success. He didn't bounce back up. He tried a knee-bounce and cried, "Ow!" He lumbered off the springs. "That hurt," he said.
He pulled up his jeans to examine his knees. "Let's don't do this anymore," he said.
"All right, let's shoot your BB gun," Vern said quickly. "I'll make a target and you get the—"
"I don't want to do that."
"No. We did that all day yesterday."
To Vern, this was no reason not to do it again today. He felt he could happily have spent the rest of his life shooting Michael's BB gun.
"Let's ask your dad to let us shoot the rifle."
"No, I don't want to."
"Then let's get your fishing rod and go down to the creek." Michael was the only person Vern knew who had a fishing rod, not a homemade fishing pole—he had one of those himself. This was a fishing rod, with a reel and a fiberglass case.
"No, I'm tired of those things."
Vern could not understand how Michael could ever become tired of a BB gun, a rifle, and a rod and reel, three things he would have given anything to own. Still, he did not want to lose a friend who had access to them. He said, "What do you want to do?"
"No, I don't."
"I want to go to your house."
Excerpted from The Blossoms and the Green Phantom by Betsy Byars. Copyright © 1987 Betsy Byars. Excerpted by permission of Holiday House.
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