The Ghost of Ernie P.by Betty Ren Wright
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Three months ago, when Ernie P. Barber came to Treverton from Los Angeles, he’d been like a missile aimed at trouble. And Ernie had chosen Jeff to be his best friend, whether he liked it or not. “You’re my buddy, old buddy,” Ernie would always say, “. . . and I’m going to cut you in on my T.S.P.” But when Ernie dies as a result of a freak accident, Jeff’s troubles are only beginning. The ghost of Ernie P. starts to haunt Jeff. At first, Jeff thinks he’s going crazy. But when the letters T.S.P. (Ernie’s code for Top Secret Plan) and some newspaper clippings keep mysteriously appearing, Jeff is convinced that Ernie’s ghost wants him to carry out the T.S.P. alone—whatever it might be. Not until Jeff faces terrible danger and stands up to the ghost of Ernie P. does the mystery of the T.S.P. unravel.
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- Age Range:
- 9 - 12 Years
Read an Excerpt
The Ghost of Ernie P.
By Betty Ren Wright
Holiday HouseCopyright © 1998 Betty Ren Wright
All rights reserved.
"I'm not at all sure you're old enough for this," Jeffrey Keppel's mother said. "Everyone will think I'm a bad mother."
Jeff rubbed the car window with his sleeve and peered through the mist at the knot of people gathering in the cemetery.
"You're not a bad mother," he said. "You're an especially good mother, because you want me to have new experiences. All kinds of experiences."
"But a funeral ..." Mrs. Keppel looked doubtful. "And the funeral of one of your best friends! You'll probably have nightmares, and I'll have to send you to Dr. Palm, and you'll tell him you went to this funeral, and he'll say —"
"You have it all wrong, Mom," Jeff interrupted. He tried to sound reassuring without explaining what, exactly, she had wrong. He wasn't going to have nightmares — he was sure of that — so he wouldn't have to go to the doctor, and nobody would tell anybody anything. She was wrong about all of that, and she was wrong about something else. Ernie Barber had never been Jeff's best friend. Not even close to it.
The truth was, Jeff was relieved that Ernie wouldn't be around anymore. He wasn't glad Ernie had slipped and fallen off the top of the slide in the schoolyard after shoving aside two or three kids half his size. Of course he wasn't glad about that. But it was a relief to know that when he went out his front door tomorrow morning, Ernie wouldn't be waiting at the end of the driveway with a mean smile on his mean face. When he went to the school cafeteria at noon, Ernie wouldn't be there, saving a place for Jeff and making dumb remarks about anyone else who tried to sit with them. From the day three months ago when Ernie P. Barber came to Treverton from Los Angeles he'd been like a missile aimed at trouble. Jeff was pretty sure that, sooner or later, he would have landed in the middle of that trouble, too.
"You're my buddy, old buddy," Ernie had said just a couple of weeks ago, "whether you want to be or not." He was letting the air out of the principal's tires when he said it.
I should have told him to get lost right then, Jeff thought. But he hadn't. It was easier to keep still. Easier and safer, he thought disgustedly. I was afraid of Ernie even when he was smiling. Especially when he was smiling!
The so-called friendship had been at least partly his mother's fault, Jeff decided. She'd said people sometimes behaved in strange ways just to get attention. She'd said you had to reach out to people like that because they didn't know how to be friendly. Later, when Jeff realized Ernie Barber was every bit as bad as he seemed to be, it was too late. Ernie had proclaimed himself Jeff's buddy, and Jeff had never been brave enough to tell him how wrong he was.
Jeff started across the wet grass of the cemetery, aware that his mother was making small, protesting sounds in the car behind him.
"Don't get too close, for goodness' sake," she whispered. "The service is supposed to be private, you know."
Jeff nodded to show he'd heard and kept on walking. The soft mist was pleasant on his face and carried with it a green, summery smell. He decided that walking in the rain was one of the things he'd miss most if he were dead — along with riding his bicycle and eating ice-cream bars and diving into Eagle Lake on a hot day. Suddenly he was sorry for Ernie Barber, who would never again enjoy any of those things. He was sorry for Ernie's folks, too, standing over there at the grave and thinking about all the good moments their boy was going to miss.
Actually, Jeff reminded himself, Ernie's list of what he was going to miss would probably be different from most people's. He'd miss scratching the paint on Mr. Carlsen's new Buick, and chasing the Peglers' cat up a telephone pole. He'd miss turning over garbage cans and painting SCUMBAG on the side of the Deckermans' garage.
He'd miss working on his Top Secret Project, too. During the weeks before he fell off the slide, Ernie had talked constantly and mysteriously about his T S P. Jeff didn't know what the Top Secret Project was, but he could tell by Ernie's smile that it was sure to make somebody unhappy.
... a fine young man. ... The minister spoke in a low voice, but Jeff was close enough to catch a few words. ... An excellent student. ...
Jeff thought about all the mornings Ernie had grabbed Jeff's math homework and hunkered down on a curb to copy it. "You take care of the math assignments, and I'm going to cut you in on my T S P," Ernie had said at least a couple of times a week. When Jeff said forget it, he didn't want to be cut in, Ernie had just smiled his mean smile and punched him on the shoulder, hard enough to hurt.
As far as Jeff could remember, there'd been only one thing that chased away Ernie's smile, and that was when someone asked his middle name.
"I'm Ernest P. Barber," he'd say, grinding his teeth at whoever had dared to ask. "The P doesn't stand for anything. It's just an initial." He'd fired the words off like bullets, his feet apart, his fists clenched, a kind of two-legged bomb ready to explode.
Jeff had tried to think what the P might stand for. Peter, Paul, Patrick, Phillip — what was there in any of those names to turn a boy into a bomb? Now he'd never know the answer to the puzzle.
He'd never know what the Top Secret Project had been either. It was something horrible, of course; it would have to have been super-horrible to have pleased Ernie so much. Jeff supposed the T S P was one of the reasons he'd wanted to come to the cemetery. He'd wanted to see for himself that Ernie P. Barber was out of his life forever and the Top Secret Project was gone with him.
... A boy loved by all who knew him, intoned the minister, proving he hadn't known Ernie at all. ... gathered together here to say good-bye to Ernest Precious Barber. ...
It happened so fast that afterward Jeff had a hard time sorting it out in his head. One minute they were standing there in the mist, and the next second the sky was ripped open by the most brilliant bolt of lightning imaginable. Thunder, sounding like ten thunderclaps in one, crashed across the cemetery.
When the roaring stopped, Jeff saw that the mourners were milling around in terror, and one of the ladies — Ernie's mother, or maybe his aunt — was screaming. The minister sat on the ground beside the open grave, holding his head with both hands as if he were afraid it was about to fall off. Behind him, a huge tombstone lay shattered in a dozen pieces.
"Jeffrey Keppel," Jeff's mother shrieked, "you come back this instant."
Jeff didn't need a second invitation. He practically flew to the car and tumbled into the passenger's seat, slamming the door behind him.
"Go!" he begged. "Come on, Mom, let's get out of here."
His mother just sat there, clutching the steering wheel, her eyes wide and staring. "If we're going to have a cloudburst, I think I'd rather be parked here than be driving." She leaned forward and peered around Jeff. "Look at those poor souls — what a dreadful thing to have happen in the middle of a burial service!"
Jeff fought an urge to crouch and hide under the dashboard. "The minister —?" he said in a shaky voice.
"He's all right, dear. At least, he's on his feet again." Mrs. Keppel looked around with a puzzled expression. "I guess the storm has blown over," she said. "Isn't that odd? Terrible lightning and thunder, and just this little bitty nothing rain to go with it."
Jeff didn't comment. His mother started the car. They drove six blocks and stopped for a traffic light before he spoke again.
"Well, now I know Ernie's middle name," he said cautiously. It was a test.
Thunder rumbled across the sky.
"The storm's coming back," Mrs. Keppel groaned. "I wish we were home."
Jeff took a deep breath. "His middle name is — was — Precious."
The car was enveloped in a flash of white light and shook as if it had been struck by a giant hand. Mrs. Keppel screamed. Jeff closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, the driver behind the Keppels was blowing his horn impatiently.
"Oh, my, look at the traffic light," Mrs. Keppel quavered. She stomped on the accelerator, and they shot into the intersection. Jeff had only a quick glimpse of the light pole slanted at a crazy angle.
"We could have been killed," Mrs. Keppel whispered. "Do you realize that? It was so close. Twice! I certainly hope you're satisfied, Jeffrey. I don't know why I let you talk me into going to the cemetery." Then she slapped her forehead lightly, and Jeff knew she was afraid she sounded like a bad mother. "Now I'm blaming you for the storm, aren't I?" she said. "That's ridiculous." She paused, obviously searching for a change of subject. "What did you say Ernie's middle name was, dear?"
Jeff shuddered. He sat up straight and cleared his throat. "I don't remember," he said. "I guess that last bolt of lightning knocked it right out of my head."
He hated to lie to his mother, but nothing could have made him say Ernie's middle name again. He'd come to the cemetery to say good-bye, and he'd found out something he didn't want to know. Ernie the boy was gone, but a part of him — the mean, bullying, trick-playing part — was still around.
Jeff had never been so scared in his life.CHAPTER 2
The telephone was ringing as the Keppels came through the connecting door from the garage.
"You answer," Jeff's mother said. "If it's for me, tell whoever I'll call back later. I'm going to heat some soup for lunch."
She's scared, too, Jeff thought as he raced upstairs, three steps at a time. On warm summer days his mother usually made a salad for lunch; soup was for days when someone needed soothing.
He grabbed the telephone and said, "Hi, Art." He was expecting his best friend to call, and besides, no one but Art Patterson would let it ring that many times.
"Did you go to the funeral?"
Jeff felt a little bit better, just hearing that familiar, squeaky voice. He sat on the edge of the bed, then slid to the floor and leaned back. Good old Art, he thought, wait'll he hears what happened!
"Did you go to the funeral?" Art demanded again. Jeff could hear lockers banging and laughter in the background. "Let's hear it, man."
"Yup," Jeff said. He stared at the receiver, puzzled. Even though he didn't intend to repeat Ernie Barber's middle name ever again, he wanted to tell Art about being almost struck by lightning. Who else did they know who'd been practically electrocuted twice in one day? But when he'd opened his mouth to tell the story, nothing had come out but "Yup," drawled the way Ernie Barber used to say it.
"Yup, what?" Art sounded puzzled. "Is that all you can say?"
There was a pause. "You mad about something?"
"Nope." Jeff took a deep breath. "There was a storm — sort of," he said, and stopped.
"I know that," Art retorted. "Tell me something new."
Jeff stared up at the round light fixture in the middle of the ceiling. For one terrifying second he thought he saw Ernie Barber's smiling face reflected in the glass. "I've got to go," he groaned. "Talk to you later."
He hung up fast, but not fast enough to miss the disgusted thunk of the receiver at the other end of the line. Art seldom got impatient, but this strange conversation had clearly annoyed him.
Jeff was furious with himself. In the three months that Ernie had attended Lakeview School, he'd tried hard to take Art Patterson's place as Jeff's best friend. It hadn't worked for a couple of reasons. First, Ernie was behind the rest of the class in math, and he'd had to stay after school for special tutoring three days a week. That gave Jeff and Art a chance to do things together undisturbed. The other reason Ernie's plan hadn't worked was Art himself. People didn't bother Art; they amused him. Jeff's mother said Art Patterson was the most laid-back boy she'd ever known. When Ernie got nasty, Art just watched him with a little half-smile, or he moved away and talked to someone else. He acted as if Ernie were an interesting bug to be studied, but not too closely.
Jeff had wanted to act the same way, but he couldn't. When Ernie whispered about his Top Secret Project, Jeff had listened, because that wide, cruel smile made him nervous. When Ernie made fun of Art and the other boys, Jeff had tried not to hear. It was easier than telling Ernie to keep still.
Now Ernie was dead, but he was still trying to come between Jeff and Art. And I'm still letting him get away with it, Jeff thought with a shudder. He scared me then, and he scares me more now!
Downstairs in the kitchen, Mrs. Keppel had set the table. She put a bowl of alphabet soup in front of Jeff, then sat opposite him with a smaller bowl for herself. "Eat," she ordered. "It's guaranteed to make you feel better."
Jeff dipped his spoon into the soup and then froze. Floating among the noodles were three letters: T S P. He dropped the spoon into the bowl with a clatter.
Mrs. Keppel didn't notice. "Was that Art on the phone?"
"Yup." Jeff dipped the spoon again and came up with the same three letters.
"Don't say Yup, darling," Mrs. Keppel murmured. "Yes sounds much better."
Jeff put the spoonful of soup into his mouth and forced himself to swallow. It had to be some weird coincidence, he told himself. This couldn't be happening. He couldn't be haunted here in his very own kitchen.
He dipped the spoon again and shivered. One chunk of carrot and three letters: T S P.
Now his mother noticed the look on his face. "You don't like the soup," she said, sounding as if she'd failed in some way. "That used to be your favorite, you know. Your father always said, 'He's going to be a writer — I never saw a kid eat so much alphabet soup.'"
Jeff smiled weakly, even though he'd heard the story many times before. His father had died when he was not quite five, but his mother still talked about him a lot. "I guess I'm not hungry," he said. "Maybe I'll just have a peanut-butter sandwich later on." He carried his bowl to the sink and stood there for a while, staring down at it. T S P bobbed to the surface in one place and then another.
"Something is definitely wrong with you," Mrs. Keppel said. "Staring at soup is not normal. I think you'd better stay home from school this afternoon. After all, with just three days left and your tests all finished, you won't be missing much."
Jeff backed away from the sink. "I don't have to be back till tomorrow." He choked out the words. "Principal said so."
"Well, good," his mother said. "You take it easy this afternoon, then. Rest and think happy thoughts. Tomorrow will be better, dear."
Jeff hoped she was right. But hanging around the house all through the long, dark afternoon didn't help at all. He dozed off twice, and each time he awoke with a start, convinced that someone had whispered the letters T S P in his ear. That night he lay awake for hours listening to creaks and groans in the old house. Had they always been there? He wasn't sure.
During the night the clouds blew away, and in the morning the sun was shining. Jeff dressed and went outside. The front lawn glittered with dew, and a squirrel scolded him from the maple tree at the curb. Everything looked freshly washed, wonderfully normal. The craziness was over, he told himself. Yesterday and last night had been part of a bad dream.
He bent down and picked up the Treverton Journal that lay rolled up at his feet. A headline leaped at him:
T S P IN SERIOUS TROUBLE
Jeff dropped the paper as if it had burned his fingers. Then he scooped it up again and dashed back into the house to read the front-page article. T S P referred to the Treverton Sanitation Plant.
Worse moments lay ahead. Art Patterson was standing at the side door of the school when Jeff finished locking his bicycle and headed up the walk. Jeff yelled to him, eager to make up after yesterday's testy telephone conversation. At first Art didn't answer, but then he turned around, and Jeff saw, to his relief, that there was a grin on his narrow, brown face.
"About time you got here," Art teased.
Jeff stared at him. His friend was wearing a new purple sweatshirt. There was a picture of a meteor streaking across the front, and above that appeared three letters. They were T S P.
Excerpted from The Ghost of Ernie P. by Betty Ren Wright. Copyright © 1998 Betty Ren Wright. Excerpted by permission of Holiday House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Betty Ren Wright (1927–2013) was the distinguished author of numerous books for young readers. Her thrillers, including The Dollhouse Murders, Christina’s Ghost, and Crandall’s Castle, have each won numerous state awards. In addition to her middle-grade mysteries, Wright has also penned more than thirty-five picture books for children, including The Blaizzard, which appeared on state-award master lists and was named a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year. In 2006 she was honored as a Notable Wisconsin Children’s Author by the Wisconsin Library Association.
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