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Two girls sat together in a miniature house that was the envy of every girl in the neighborhood, maybe even the city, the state, and the nation! The house, if not the girls, had been in a national magazine. To Karen and Melanie it was the best place to be private, considering Melanie had four brothers and a baby sister.
Movement in the yard caught Karen's attention.
"Oh, wow! I can't believe who's outside! Look! It's Jack Hooper." Karen crawled hastily across the small room to peer out the window above Melanie's head. The girls had just finished sixth grade. Jack Hooper was two grades ahead.
"What? Let me see." Melanie rose up on her knees and turned to look through the tiny window, shoving Karen to the side. "He's talking to my brother John!"
"Duck! They're coming this way." Karen pulled on Melanie's shirt. The girls crouched down low and out of sight.
"What do you think they're talking about?" asked Karen, whispering.
"Let's crack the door open." Melanie inched across the floor, carefully keeping her head down low. Karen crept right behind her.
"Melanie, scoot over! I can't hear!" Karen whispered as soon as the door was open.
The boys came closer and the girls could hear Jack's deep voice.
"Are you sure you can't do it? Nobody will take the job," complained Jack.
"I'd help you out, but my summer's full. I have a camping trip with my Boy Scout troop. My league is practicing for the state play-offs, and our church is doing a buddy program with some kids from a downtown church."
"Yeah, I understand. But, I've got to find someone. I can't miss this chance. Can you imagine the whole summer vacation at Uncle Rock'sfishing camp in Canada?"
"You said you'd be working."
"Working? Some kind of working! I'll be fishing, canoeing, boating, camping, hiking... . They even take a small pontoon plane out to the remote lakes. People pay to spend one week there. I'll get paid to spend the whole summer."
"Sounds great," John agreed.
"Sounds impossible if I don't find someone to do my regular job."
Karen nudged Melanie. "Poor Jack. Come on. Let's offer to help him."
"I don't know, Karen."
"Oh, come on. It'll be helping Jack."
"Okay," Melanie agreed reluctantly. "But, you do the talking."
"Fine with me."
"Uh. Could we help?" Karen had scrambled out of their hiding place and did her best to look casual. She stood in the doorway of the little house.
Karen had just managed to elude Melanie's grasp. As soon as Melanie had agreed, she'd changed her mind. In her panic, she grabbed for her friend's ankle, but Karen was too quick and too determined.
"Karen." A moan came out of the playhouse. Melanie crawled out even though she preferred to stay hidden.
"You will?" Jack turned sharply to the playhouse, astonishment on his face.
Karen shrugged. "Sure, no big deal. Glad to help out. Uh, anytime, you know."
"Melanie." Big brother John looked at his sister with disbelief in his voice. "You and Karen are volunteering to take over the job of old lady Coffenstein's yard for the whole summer?"
Both girls turned big eyes on each other, suddenly realizing just what they'd stepped into. Melanie swallowed hard. Karen knew she was thinking about the crazy things they'd heard about the strange woman. Her spooky house was only a block away at the corner of Shadow Lane and Crump Street.
Karen turned a stiff smile to John and Jack, thinking, How can we get out of this?
"I'm not so sure we could do yard work." Her false smile felt plastered to her face. "If it's hard and all ... I mean if it takes muscles like Jack has, or ... uh, I mean, if you have to know lots about plants and stuff ... "
"Oh, it's easy." Jack jumped in. "No hard work at all. You just push the lawnmower once a week and pick up trash."
He sure is eager, thought Karen, to find someone willing to enter the den of the witch. Of course, she isn't a witch, but nobody knows Mrs. Coffenstein. And she sure looks really odd. Most of the kids in the neighborhood tell scary tales about the old lady. Karen looked at the two older boys. Jack thinks we'll change our minds, and John's grinning like a hyena.
John wiped the smile from his face and spoke in a low, serious tone. "She keeps a crazy husband in the back room, you know. She hasn't let him out in over twenty years. They say he thinks little girls are squirrels and tries to shoot them with a BB gun."
"Oh, be quiet," stormed Melanie. His teasing made her angry, and she forgot for a minute that Jack was there, and Jack always made her feel shy and awkward. "You just let Karen and me talk this over."
Melanie tugged Karen back into the playhouse.
"Are you crazy?" Melanie hissed. "That lady is as old as Pike's Peak and crazier than a dog stuck in a box for a week! Don't you know what people say about her?"
"We don't know anything but some silly talk we heard. She might be nice. Jack has done work for her every summer and his older brother did it before him."
"Too bad you didn't remember that a minute ago, before you rushed out there to volunteer." Melanie pressed her lips into a hard line. Karen had a way of getting them into trouble.
"Well, Jack and his brother weren't eaten alive or trapped in a dungeon or anything. We ought to do what's right for the poor old lady. Besides, Jack will be grateful."
"Jack is cute, but I don't know if he's that cute!"
"Look, you know about gardens, because your mom always has a vegetable patch and a flower bed and all kinds of neat stuff. My mom doesn't have the time or money for all that, and I've always wanted a garden. With your brains and my muscle, we'll have that place looking great."
Melanie sighed. Her friend didn't have it as good as she did. Melanie had both her mom and dad. Karen's dad had divorced her mom and lived in New Mexico someplace. Melanie's dad had a good job and her mom stayed at home. Karen's mom worked as a secretary to the president of the junior college, and they didn't have very much money.
"The garden wouldn't be yours." Melanie made one more effort at protesting this crazy idea. "It would still be the yard of a crazy old lady."
"I know, I know. But Jack wants us to, and I want to give it a try. It would be nice, and we would get paid! It's exactly what I've been praying for!"
"All right, you win. We'll tell Jack we will."
They walked back outside to the waiting boys, and Karen simply said, "We'll do it."
After agreeing to meet Jack at Mrs. Coffenstein's house at four o'clock, Melanie and Karen went back in the playhouse for a major conference.
"This is going to be great," said Karen with her typical gung-ho enthusiasm.
"Well," said the quieter Melanie, "I did want to spend the summer doing something different."
"What was the matter with last summer?" Karen wrinkled her brow thinking. She couldn't think of any disasters which had befallen her best friend the year before. It had been a perfectly acceptable, ordinary summer vacation.
"It was boring."
Boring? Karen had had a fantastic summer. Hadn't Melanie been along for the same fun? What could she mean?
"What did you do last year?" asked Karen, expecting her friend to say she'd been gone and a clone had taken over her role for the summer.
"Nothing," complained Melanie. "Absolutely nothing."
"Hey! You went to my softball games."
"We went swimming."
"I look like a seven year old in a swimsuit."
"Mom says in a couple of years you'll be glad you're so tiny."
"Right! And, what will I be doing this year while I'm waiting to look like I'm twelve."
Karen didn't really sympathize with her friend's problem. After all, Melanie had straight perfect little teeth, and Karen was going to have to have braces at the end of the summer. Melanie only had to wear glasses when she was reading, or doing her counted cross stitch. Karen had to wear her glasses constantly, and it was a real pain when she played soccer, or basketball, or volleyball, or her favorite, softball. But, Karen considered herself a good buddy and made an effort to lift her friend's sprits.
"It doesn't matter what you look like. You have a nice personality."
"Right! I repeat--and what will I be doing this year while I'm waiting to look like I'm twelve."
Karen decided to use a different tactic.
"Mom wanted me to earn some money this summer. I could have been babysitting Mark every week."
Both girls made a "rather be dead" face and then, giggled.
"Now I see why you were so eager to take Jack's job."
Karen grinned. Melanie always understood her. Melanie was a great friend. They'd played together in this house since kindergarten. It was in the Honeywell's back yard. Of course they were too old now to really play in the house, even though it was as neat as all get out. Melanie's father was an architect, and the house was designed and built for a magazine article he once did. Melanie's dad was kind of famous if you were into architecture.
Now they used the three-room miniature house as a kind of clubhouse. Karen and Melanie were beyond the little plastic dishes and the cute kitchen with running water. Soon, Melanie's baby sister would be coming out to claim the house for her turn to weave fantastic stories while playing with the small furniture. Karen and Melanie were growing up, ready to take on their first summer job.
And it would take courage and fortitude to work for a weird recluse. Karen hoped it would all work out.
"We better get going," she said.