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While thirteen-year-old Johnny Dixon lies dying, possessed by an evil ...
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While thirteen-year-old Johnny Dixon lies dying, possessed by an evil spirit, his friends, an elderly professor and a schoolmate, try to find some way to free him.
"No! No! Keep them off me! Keep them off!"
With a sudden jerk Johnny Dixon sat straight up in his bed. He opened his eyes and looked blearily around, and then he wiped his arm across his face, which was wet with tears. Outside, rain was falling steadily, on a September night in the year 1952. Johnny had just awakened from a very unpleasant dream, one that he had had several times before, but each time filled him with sickening fear.
In the dream, Johnny always found himself standing in front of a deserted one-room schoolhouse that stood near a country road, not far from the town of Duston Heights, Massachusetts, where Johnny lived. At first he just stared at the schoolhouse. Then he moved closer, and he noticed a wooden plaque, with Hebrew letters set in a wreath of golden rays, over the door. The door opened, and Johnny went inside. It was cold and dark and musty smelling. At the far end of the room a tall, ornate candlestick stood next to an oblong block that looked like an altar. In the middle of the altar lay a grayish lump, and as Johnny moved closer to see what the thing was, moonlight flooded the room. Glancing quickly to his left, Johnny saw three tall stained-glass windows. The one on the left showed a hooded figure in a long black robe. The face of the figure was completely hidden by the hood, and something that looked like an octopus tentacle dangled from the left sleeve. The window on the right was filled by the menacing shape of an angel dressed like a Roman soldier. He wore a golden breastplate and carried a shield, and in his upraised right hand was a sword of flickering orange flame. The angel's eyes were wide and unearthly, and they were staring relentlessly at Johnny. They seemed to be burning holes in his brain. With a violent effort, Johnny tore his eyes away from the angel's gaze and looked at the middle window. Before him, lit by the moonlight, was the picture of a gaunt old man in a shimmering blue gown. In one hand the old man held a skull, and in the other a scroll on which the words ZEBULON PATRIACHA were printed. Like the angel, the old man had wide, hypnotic eyes, and as Johnny stared into them, he heard a faint whispery noise. Suddenly the old man was standing before him on the dusty floor of the room. Johnny stood paralyzed—he couldn't move a muscle. The old man began to speak, and his words seemed to burst inside Johnny's brain.
I am Zebulon Windrow, said the harsh, grating voice. You have done great wrong to a member of my family. I seek vengeance, and vengeance I will have. Know that the spirit of Warren Windrow still walks the earth. Be warned, foolish child!
And with that the old man vanished, and the room was plunged into darkness. Instantly Johnny heard a horrible rustling sound, like the fluttering of a million insect wings, echoing all around him. Feelers brushed across his body and his face, and he began frantically waving his arms and yelling. The angry buzzing got louder and louder. Johnny woke up.
The September rain kept falling. Johnny closed his eyes and swallowed hard. He shuddered and opened his eyes, groping for his glasses, which lay neatly folded on the bedside table. Finally he found them and put them on.
Johnny was thirteen years old. He was short, blond-haired, and pale, and a bit on the timid side. Johnny's mother was dead and his father was an officer in the Air Force, so for almost two years Johnny had been living with his grandparents. This was an unusual arrangement, but Johnny was an unusual kid. The only boy his own age he really got along with was Byron Ferguson, or Fergie, as he was usually called. Johnny's best friend in all the world was an elderly man who lived across the street, a history professor named Roderick Childermass. The two of them were very close, and they had shared some strange adventures since Johnny had first come to Duston Heights. One of these incidents occurred last February, when Johnny and the professor were staying at a country inn in New Hampshire. Accidentally, the professor had touched a tiny skull that was inside a dollhouse room, and this had awakened an ancient curse that had been dormant many years. It was a spell laid on the Childermass family by a man named Warren Windrow, who was hanged in the 1850s because he had tried to murder the professor's granduncle, Lucius Childermass. With Johnny's help, the professor had been saved from destruction and, supposedly, the curse was broken. But was it? Johnny wanted to believe that everything was all right. But why was he having this horrible dream, over and over?
As he walked the streets of Duston Heights that September, Johnny thought a lot about the dream. He thought of telling the professor about it, but the professor would probably say that Johnny was merely suffering from some bad feelings caused by the awful experience that he had had. Johnny knew that this was probably a reasonable thing to say. After all, he had read about people who had nightmares because of things that happened to them, like bad car accidents. Johnny also thought about what Fergie would say if he told him about the dreams. Fergie was a smart-alecky type. He would just tell Johnny not to eat so many salami-and-pickle sandwiches. So after he had chewed the matter over in his mind for a while, Johnny told himself that he wouldn't talk about the dreams to anybody. He didn't want his friends to laugh at him, and anyway, the dreams would go away eventually.
At the end of September it got warm and hazy. One evening Johnny and the professor were sitting out on the professor's front porch. They had played several games of chess and eaten about half of a chocolate layer cake with banana-fudge frosting, and now they were just relaxing and listening to the feeble chirping of the last few crickets. The professor was sitting in an old saggy wicker chair. His feet were up on the porch rail and he was puffing at one of his smelly Balkan Sobranie cigarettes. Professor Childermass was a short man with a wild mess of white hair on his head and a nose that looked like an overripe strawberry. His normal expression was crabby, and he did indeed have a rotten temper, but he was also very kindhearted and a good friend to those who got to know him well. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and turned to Johnny, who was rocking lazily back and forth on the porch swing.
"The last gasp of summer, eh, John Michael?" said the professor. "Pretty soon we'll b£ raking leaves till our arms get tired, and then we'll be shoveling snow and cursing the foul weather. At least I'll be cursing—I usually find something to gripe about in any kind of weather, being the foul-tempered old coot that I am."
A pause. No response. The swing creaked gently as Johnny swayed back and forth in it.
The professor frowned. He was beginning to get concerned. He knew that Johnny got moody sometimes, but usually he could see the boy's foul moods coming a mile off. And this evening Johnny had been very cheerful and talkative—until now, anyway.
The professor coughed. "Well, John!" he said loudly. "Another baseball season has gone by, and once again the Red Sox have been left in the lurch. But that's life, isn't it? By the way, what's on your mind besides hair? Hmm? You haven't said a blessed word for the last ten minutes. Did my cake clog up your windpipe? Are you choking to death quietly and with great dignity? Eh?"
"I'm okay, professor," said Johnny at last. His voice sounded strained, as if he had to make an effort to speak.
"You don't sound okay," muttered the professor, giving Johnny a quick sidelong glance. "Remember, John, if there's something eating you, it's better to talk about it. I'm no psychiatrist, but I am your friend, and we've always trusted each other before—that's what friendship is all about, isn't it? Please don't sit there with something unpleasant bottled up inside you. Bring it out into the open! You'll feel better, I promise!"
Johnny shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and it seemed as if he were about to say something. But then, through the open window behind them, came the sound of the mantel clock striking. It binged ten times.
"My gosh, it's ten o'clock!" exclaimed Johnny as he slid quickly off his seat. "I have to get up early tomorrow for school. Thanks for the cake and ... and everything." As the professor stared, Johnny dashed across the porch, down the steps, and halfway down the walk. But then, suddenly, he turned.
"Do you believe in dreams, professor?" he yelled, cupping his hands to his mouth.
The professor was astonished. "Do I ..." he began in a wondering voice. Then he jumped to his feet, but Johnny did not wait for an answer. He raced across the street into the darkness, and the professor heard the screen door of the Dixon house slam.
"Blast!" exclaimed the professor as he flung down his cigarette and ground it under the sole of his shoe. "If that doesn't just beat everything!"
By midnight everyone on Fillmore Street was asleep. The temperature had dropped sharply, and fog began to drift into the town. It slithered past the Dixon house in ghostly curls and eddies, and one long gray finger of mist rose up to touch the half-open window of the room where Johnny lay asleep. Suddenly Johnny sat up. With wide-open, unseeing eyes he turned his head, peeled back the sheet, and slid out of bed. Moving stiffly, he walked out of the room, down the front stairs, and out onto the sidewalk. It was a chilly night, and he was wearing only thin cotton pajamas—nevertheless, he did not seem to feel the cold. Down the foggy street he went, walking for blocks and blocks, till he came to the edge of town. He crunched over the gravel that bordered a narrow blacktop road, but if the gravel hurt his bare feet, he didn't notice. Suddenly he stopped. Off to the right, in a weedy yard, was an old white schoolhouse with boarded windows. Stumping along woodenly, like a robot, Johnny made his way through the woods to the front steps of the school, and then—noiselessly—the old weathered door opened. Johnny disappeared inside for a fairly long time. When he came out again, his face still looked blank and his eyes were glazed. But his mouth was twisted into a harsh, brutal, sneering smile. The smile distorted Johnny's face, and almost made him look like a different person.
When Johnny woke up the next morning, he made a shocking discovery. His pajama bottoms were damp from the knees down and his feet were dirty. There was gravel on his sheets, and there were gravelly footprints on the floor of his bedroom. What on earth had happened? Had he been walking in his sleep? It certainly looked like it, but where had he been to? Johnny felt panicky at first, and then, when he had calmed down a bit, he wondered what his grandmother would say about the dirty sheets and the footprints on the floor. As he sat thinking about this, someone knocked on the door. With a sinking heart Johnny got up to answer it. There Gramma stood, with a broom in one hand and a dustpan in the other. She did not seem to be in a very good mood.
"John Dixon," she said in an accusing tone, "can you tell me anything about these footprints an' this dirt I been sweepin' up on the front stairs? Hmm?"
Johnny swallowed hard. "I guess I must've been walkin' in my sleep, Gramma," he said weakly.
Gramma looked startled, and then her frown turned to a kindly smile. "I shoulda guessed," she said, shaking her head. "My uncle Martin used ta walk in his sleep, an' it nearly drove his wife crazy. Well, look. You hafta get ready fer school, so get on down t' the bathroom an' wash up. Only tonight remember t'lock your bedroom door before you turn in. That'll keep you in—leastways that's what people claim. Now go on, get a move on!"
Johnny ran quickly down the hall to the bathroom and heaved a deep sigh of relief. But as he brushed his teeth, the nagging questions came back. Why had he been walking in his sleep? And where had he gone?
As the days of October passed, Johnny began to behave strangely. He took long walks by himself, and he found that he was thinking about some very peculiar things. He thought about bags of gold dust, and men panning for gold in mountain streams. He kept playing poker games in his mind, and he would mutter things like Four of a kind beats a full house.... See you, and raise you twenty dollars.... Pair of jacks bets. He thought of gold coins and silver dollars clattering on tables in smoky, dimly lit saloons. He thought about grizzled, sunburned men who carried long-barreled six-shooters in leather holsters, and he thought about knife fights too. Sometimes, on these long lonely walks, Johnny would feel himself getting very angry. He was angry at a smug, superior-acting young bearded man who always won at cards and threw money around as if it meant nothing to him. But who was this man? Johnny hadn't the slightest idea.
At night Johnny began to have dreams that were even more frightening than the ones he had been having before. In these dreams he was led out onto a rough wooden stage with a trapdoor out in the middle. Down below the edge of the stage, Johnny saw a sea of upturned faces, men and women who sneered and mocked and laughed at him. His arms were tied behind him and someone was shoving him out onto the middle of the platform. He tried to struggle, but it was no use. He was standing on the trapdoor, and someone was lashing his feet together with a leather strap. The noose dangled overhead, and he saw it drop lower and felt the rough, hairy rope around his neck. The noose tightened, and a black sack was dropped over his head. Johnny began to scream, and then he was falling, falling....
Johnny would wake up in a state of panic, with a feeling of tightness around his throat. Whenever Johnny had this dream, he found that it was impossible to go to sleep again that night.
People began to notice that there was something the matter with Johnny. He would show up at the breakfast table with a wild, haunted look on his face, and his grandmother and grandfather would glance at each other in a frightened way, and they would ask if he felt all right. Johnny would snap at them and say that of course he felt all right, and that would end the conversation. In school Johnny was doing badly. Usually he did very well in subjects like Latin, history, English, and science—Johnny was a real brain. But now his mind went blank when he tried to read or answer test questions. And when he attempted to concentrate on homework, a voice would whisper in his ear and tell him to forget about his work, it wasn't really important. This whispering, insistent voice was with Johnny much of the day now. When he was with his friend Fergie, it would ask him why he spent so much time with this ugly, gawky oaf. When he was with the professor, it would tell him that an old man was a rather strange companion for a young, handsome lad like himself. Johnny didn't always listen to the voice, or obey it—in fact, he tried hard to fight the whisperer and make him go away. But as time went by, he began to get the horrible feeling that there was somebody else inside him, someone who was trying to take over.
One windy evening in the middle of October, Johnny and his friend Fergie were over at the professor's house for a card party. Fergie was a gangly kid with a droopy face and a long, blunt-ended nose. He had big ears and big feet, and he was always making jokes. Johnny had met Fergie a year ago at Boy Scout camp, and they had become friends quickly. Fergie had gotten to know the professor through Johnny, and now the three of them often did things together. The card party turned out to be a lot of fun for the two boys and the old man. They drank lots of hot spiced cider and gorged on Rigo Jancsi, which is a kind of super chocolate torte with two kinds of flavored whipped cream and fondant frosting on top. They did all their gobbling in the kitchen, and then they took their cider mugs out to the dining room and sat down to play hearts. As they played, the professor was watching Johnny closely. He knew that there was something wrong with Johnny and he was trying to figure out what it was. Oddly enough, Johnny wanted to tell the professor about his problems—but he was scared to. The voice inside him told Johnny that awful things would happen to him if he tried to talk to the old man, so he just clammed up.
In the middle of the game a peculiar thing happened. The professor led with the king of clubs, Johnny threw on a jack, and Fergie laid down the four.
Excerpted from The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost by John Bellairs. Copyright © 1985 John Bellairs. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 29, 2000