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Benny's Flashlight Hat
"It's too dark in the backseat to play magnetic checkers." Henry Alden grumbled. "I can hardly see any of my black pieces."
"That's because I jumped most of them," his brother, Benny, answered.
Henry frowned. Like the other Aldens, Henry was usually cheerful on family car trips. But here he was, fourteen years old and losing at checkers to his six-year-old brother. "I'm no match for Benny and his flashlight hat," he admitted.
The two brothers, along with their two sisters, Jessie and Violet, had been riding in Grandfather Alden's car for hours. Now it was dark and not a good time to play car games. But Benny could see fine, thanks to the new invention he wore on his head. On other nighttime car trips, Benny had wished for a hat with a built-in flashlight so he could see and have both hands free to play car games. When Grandfather's friend Isabel Putter invited the whole family to take part in the invention convention she organized every year, Benny knew just what to invent.
"Maybe I could invent a flashlight hat for you, too," Benny offered. He sat back, waiting for Henry to make a tricky move in the dim light of the car.
Henry groaned. "You rascal! You're probably going to beat me at checkers and win first prize at the invention convention with your hat."
"Hope so." Benny smiled confidently.
To make the hat even more useful, Benny had attached a mirror to it. Violet, who was ten, had found an old dental mirror in her crafts bag, which was full of odds and ends. She and Benny had attached the small mirror-on-a-stick to the flashlight hat. Not only could Benny see in the dark, he could see what was behind him, too!
Twelve-year-old Jessie didn't need a flashlight hat. She always remembered to bring along a plain old flashlight to read maps in the car at night. "Good thing there's a full moon tonight," Jessie said as they drove past the building she'd been looking for. "I think that was the Red Rooster Diner, Grandfather. Ms. Putter said to look for the big wooden rooster on the roof and take the next right."
"You're an excellent navigator, Jessie," Mr. Alden said as he made the right turn. "Sorry we left Greenfield so late. I'm afraid we won't arrive much before midnight. Not to worry, though. Isabel said she would wait up for us."
Mr. Alden looked thoughtful. "It's a shame Isabel's grandmother, Alice Putter, didn't live long enough to see how Isabel has turned the invention convention into such a big event. Inventors come from all over."
"Even Greenfield," Benny said, as if they had driven across the world.
A few minutes later, Mr. Alden parked the car at the end of a long driveway. Several bright porch lights came on. The Aldens found themselves facing one of the most curious houses they had ever seen.
"All the windows have different shapes," Violet said. "And the chimneys, too. It looks like a cartoon house."
"I think it looks like a gingerbread house that's melting," Benny said.
Mr. Alden laughed. "Even houses remind you of food, Benny!"
The children could hardly wait to go inside. The house had many doors, each one a different size. The porch wasn't like the one at Grandfather's house, with its straight railings and steps. No, this porch went up, down, and all around the house on different levels.
A concert of barking dogs greeted the Aldens as they opened the car doors.
"Those two dogs look like sausages with legs," Benny said. "Their bellies practically touch the ground."
Jessie giggled as the dogs waddled toward the car. A tall, graceful woman about Grandfather's age walked behind the two basset hounds. "I'm so glad Ms. Putter has dogs, since we had to leave poor Watch at home."
Grandfather smiled. "Poor Watch? Oh, I wouldn't worry about him. You know how Mrs. McGregor spoils him when we're away. She's not only the best housekeeper, but the best dog keeper, too. Watch probably had steak for dinner."
The children hopped out of the car. They were eager to meet Isabel Putter and her dogs.
"Meet Ruff and Tumble," Isabel said. "Ruff is the noisy one. Tumble got his name because he often tumbled off his dog bed when he was a puppy."
Violet giggled as one of the hounds sniffed at her feet. "They must smell our dog, Watch, on me, Ms. Putter. He slept on my sneakers last night."
"Careful," Isabel warned. "Their favorite treats are shoelaces. Be sure to put your sneakers in the closet at night." Isabel smoothed her white hair, then buttoned her woolly sweater over her bathrobe. "Please excuse my nightclothes. I wasn't sure when you'd be arriving. I'm certainly glad to meet you children. You weren't even born yet when your parents visited a long time ago."
The children were quiet for a few seconds. They would always miss their parents. Thank goodness for Grandfather. After their parents had died, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, plus Watch, had lived by themselves in a boxcar in the woods. Grandfather had searched all over until he'd found them. Now they lived in Grandfather's big comfy house in Greenfield. And they still had their boxcar, which Grandfather had placed in his backyard for the children to use as a playhouse.
"Whoa!" Benny cried as Ruff and Tumble ran after a raccoon in the nearby garden. "Who's that standing in your garden? I mean, what's that?"
Everyone turned to look. Smack in the middle of the garden, next to several tomato plants, stood the tall, wiry shape of a man.
Isabel Putter laughed. "That, Benny, was Grandma Alice's idea of a scarecrow! I'm sure your grandfather told you that my grandmother was a sculptor and an inventor. Many of her sculptures are beautiful and useful. When there's a breeze, that big metal scarecrow spins around and scares the birds and animals from the garden."
"Good thing Ruff and Tumble can't run very fast on their stubby legs," Jessie said as she watched the two dogs trying to catch up to the raccoon. "The Greenfield raccoons know better than to visit Grandfather's house if Watch is around."
Isabel led the Aldens up the steps of the house. She pushed open one of the low doors. "You can go in this one, Benny. Grandma Alice designed doors for grownups and doors for children."
"And doors for dogs." Benny lowered his head and entered through the Benny-sized doorway behind Ruff and Tumble, who had given up chasing the raccoon.
When the children stepped into the large entryway they were startled to see a huge round face staring back at them.
"Whoa!" Henry said. "That's the biggest grandfather clock I've ever seen. Does it work?"
Isabel smiled at the children. "You'll hear it strike midnight soon. Grandma Alice became famous for the clocks she designed and built. Each one is different. Grandma Alice loved anything mechanical — music boxes, jewelry boxes, but especially clocks."
Violet stepped in front of the clock and stared up. "The face is the man in the moon. It's hand-painted with stars and blue sky. I've never seen such a beautiful clock."
Isabel came over and stood next to Violet. "I'm glad you like it. Your grandfather told me you're an artist, too. I have to warn you that Grandma Alice had quite a sense of humor.
This clock and all the others in the house make a terrible racket at midnight and at noon. I promise you won't sleep through it."
"Who would want to?" Jessie asked as she admired the unusual clock.
"Most people who stay here more than one night!" Isabel answered. "Now, we'd better get you upstairs where you'll be staying."
Everyone looked up. Two green eyes shone from between the stair railings.
"Yeow," the green-eyed creature cried again.
Isabel laughed. "Oh, Midnight, there you are. Well, you'd better go hide under one of the beds. Ruff and Tumble are here."
As the children drew closer, they saw that the green eyes belonged to a pitch-black cat. A second later it vanished into one of the upstairs rooms.
"Midnight usually has the run of this house, since Ruff and Tumble live in my cottage," Isabel said. "But she's not likely to stick around here if the dogs are nearby."
Isabel shooed the dogs away from the bedroom where Midnight had gone to hide.
As the children climbed to the next floor, they found surprises wherever they turned. Grandma Alice had designed her home like a fun house with crooked chairs, curved mirrors, and tipsy steps.
"Here you are," Isabel said when everyone reached the top floor. "Grandma Alice turned the attic into a special room for all of us grandchildren when we visited. You can see from the size of the doors and windows, it's designed for children, especially the youngest ones." She motioned toward a low purple door.
Benny smiled happily. "For once I'm glad to be the smallest."
Isabel nodded at Henry and Jessie, who were taller than the door. "Sorry, you two. The rest of us will have to scrunch down to get in and out. Violet, I think you can scoot under."
As soon as Violet stepped through the door, she felt right at home. Every wall was a different color, as was each piece of furniture. The space was decorated with one-of-a-kind clocks and lamps that clearly had been designed by Alice Putter. The chairs, dressers, tables, and beds were all the same style, but they were each different heights.
Jessie examined one of the beds. "I get it," she said. "The legs on the furniture are like telescopes. You can expand them to make them higher or lower."
Isabel showed the children how to adjust the furniture. "Grandma Alice wanted furniture all grandchildren could use no matter what size they were. She designed everything in here to grow or shrink. Everyone always said she could make a lot of money selling the furniture. But Grandma Alice didn't care a fig about having plenty of money, just plenty of work and plenty of fun."
"Same with us," Henry said. He turned the legs on one of the beds to raise it up. He needed a tall bed because he was nice and tall. After unrolling his sleeping bag, he flopped back on the bed. "Now it's perfect."
Violet adjusted the chest of drawers next to the bed she was going to sleep in. "Goldilocks would like this house. Everything is just right."
Grandfather yawned. "Well, Isabel, I hope you have a nice, normal bed in the guest room of your cottage." Isabel lived in a small cottage behind the big house. She and Grandfather would be staying there.
"Yes, I do have normal beds in there, James. Now let's duck out of here and let these children get to sleep," Isabel said. "Good night."
Ruff and Tumble looked up at Isabel. Then they plopped themselves down on the plaid dog bed in the middle of the room.
"Okay, okay. You two can have a sleepover in here," Isabel told the dogs. "But no barking when the clocks go off. Especially you, Ruff. And no climbing on these beds. Understand?" Isabel turned to the children. "I'll let Midnight out on the way down. We can't have her inside the house with these two."
Ruff and Tumble tilted their heads as if they understood every word.
"I'm not even tired," Benny announced after Grandfather and Isabel had left. His eyes were bright and lively. He didn't look a bit sleepy. "I can't wait to hear all these clocks!"
Henry glanced at his watch. "It's almost midnight now. Five, four, three, two ..."
All at once wooden birds and mice and even a rabbit popped out from the clocks in the room. They chirped and squeaked and hopped as they went in and out of the clocks over and over.
"They're cuckoo clocks, only with different kinds of animals!" Violet laughed with delight. "I've never seen such pretty ones, except for the Alice Putter nightingale clock at home."
The room was filled with chimes, cuckoos, and bells.
In the middle of the racket, Ruff and Tumble began to howl. Their tails moved back and forth in rhythm with the clocks.
The Aldens were still laughing when the birds, mice, and rabbits suddenly disappeared into their clocks. All the chirping and chiming in the house came to a stop.
"I don't think we'll be able to sleep through that tomorrow night," Jessie declared. "Not unless we get earplugs."
As the children climbed into their beds, Ruff and Tumble began to growl.
"What's the matter, you two?" Jessie asked softly. "Isabel let Midnight out of the house already."
"Listen," Henry said. "Do you hear that?"
The children froze in place.
Jessie shushed the dogs. "Tapping. Where's it coming from?"
With their tails straight up, Ruff and Tumble pulled away from Jessie. They stood at the door, whining.
"Something must be wrong," said Violet.
"Let's investigate," Benny said firmly. He led the way down the moonlit staircase.
When the Aldens reached the first floor, the tapping had stopped. The dim entryway was still. The face of the grandfather clock glowed in the moonlight.
In the dark shadows at the foot of the stairs stood Midnight, her back arched in fright. At the sight of Ruff and Tumble, she ran out the open front door.
"Look." Henry pointed to the door. "That door shouldn't be open. The wind must have blown it open and banged it against the wall."
"I guess that's what made the tapping noise," Jessie said.
Ruff and Tumble tried to squeeze themselves past Henry to get outside.
"Don't let them out," Jessie said. "If they see the raccoon again, they'll wake up everybody." Jessie stuck her head out the door. The wind had picked up. Suddenly she gasped. There was a person in the garden! Oh, it's only the scarecrow, she decided. She pulled the door shut.
The Aldens walked back upstairs.
Except for the softly ticking clocks, the house was quiet. The sleepy children were quiet, too, except for the thump, thump, thump of their own heartbeats.CHAPTER 2
Something Is Missing
The next morning, the Aldens awoke to the steady ticking of the clocks.
Benny's stomach rumbled. He opened one eye, then the other. Pushing his brown bangs from his forehead, he sat up. He was hungry.
Seeing Benny awake, Ruff and Tumble trotted over. They rested their quivering noses on the edge of his custom-size bed.
Benny stroked the dogs' long, silky ears. "You guys must be hungry, too."
Henry sat up in bed. "And I must be hungry three," he joked.
Soon all of them — boys, girls, and dogs — were up and about. Isabel had said they could help set up some of the inventions that had arrived already. The children could hardly wait to see what the other inventors had designed.
Under Jessie's supervision, teeth were brushed, hair was combed, sneakers were tied, and sleeping bags were rolled neatly on each bed. Benny put on his flashlight hat. Then the dogs and children followed their noses downstairs and over to Isabel's cottage. They could hear silverware clinking and food sizzling. The dogs ran ahead as fast as they could, which wasn't awfully fast on their short legs. Midnight, who was eating her breakfast, had plenty of time to scurry away.
When his grandchildren bounded into Isabel's cheery kitchen, Grandfather set down his coffee cup. "Morning, sleepyheads," he said, getting up to hug them. "I knew all these good breakfast smells would wake you up."
"Help yourselves to pancakes," Isabel said. "They're warming on the stove along with the sausages. Everything else is on the table. Now, tell me, did you sleep through all the clocks chiming at midnight?"
Benny speared a sausage. "No way! I stayed up past midnight! The clocks made lots of noise right in our room. And guess what. We heard some mystery tapping."
"Tapping?" Isabel asked, puzzled. "Are you certain it wasn't the wind?"
Jessie sat down next to Isabel. "I think it was the wind. The scarecrow was spinning in the garden, anyway."
During breakfast Isabel explained what needed to be done that morning. "Many of the inventors are already in town. Some have already dropped off their inventions in the old garage. Others mailed their inventions — you can help unpack them. My assistant, Martha, is registering the inventions now. After she finishes, you can help move some of the pieces into the main house. I'll meet you in the garage after breakfast and —"
Ruff and Tumble suddenly stopped eating. They skittered across the kitchen floor and rushed to another part of the house, barking all the way.
"Goodness, what's that all about?" Isabel asked. She quickly rose from the table to see.
Although they hated to leave their delicious pancakes, the Aldens followed.
"Mr. Percy!" Isabel yelled over the barking.
The dogs had cornered a short, round, balding man in the far side of the living room. A small wooden toolbox lay open next to him on the fireplace mantel.
"Please call these animals away!" the man cried.
Isabel and Henry took Ruff and Tumble by their collars. They led them to a small room and closed the door. The dogs whined and barked to be let out.
"You can come out in a while," Isabel told them. "Quiet, now!"
The dogs whined sadly. Isabel and Henry returned to the living room.
By this time Grandfather had introduced himself and the children to Mr. Percy. Mr. Percy didn't seem a bit interested in knowing who they were. He closed the door of a glass clock on the mantelpiece that had all its gears and springs showing. "Well, I certainly didn't need to be attacked by a pack of wild dogs, Ms. Putter," he complained. "If you want me to fix and clean your grandmother's clocks and artworks, you mustn't let those beasts loose on me."
Excerpted from The Midnight Mystery by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau. Copyright © 2003 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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