Read an Excerpt
The Secret Window
By Betty Ren Wright
Holiday HouseCopyright © 1982 Betty Ren Wright
All rights reserved.
The Dream Book
"Meg, for heaven's sake!"
The dream shattered under the impact of the angry voice, and Meg blinked awake. Her mother stood over her, filling the small bedroom. "What are you doing in bed? Are you sick? I asked you to peel potatoes and turn on the oven at four thirty. Is that such a big favor?"
"I'm not sick." Meg sat up and rubbed her eyes. "What time is it? I just lay down for a minute — I didn't mean to fall asleep." The dream. Mustn't forget the dream before I have a chance to write it in the notebook.
"Obviously it's five fifteen or I wouldn't be home," her mother snapped. "And I see no reason why a twelve-year-old girl needs a nap after school. When I was your age I was taking care of five little brothers and sisters while my mother worked. I certainly didn't have time to —" She stopped, her face going through one of the swift changes of expression that Meg knew well. "I realize you don't want to hear what I did when I was your age," she said in a softer voice. "Still, I can't see why you —"
"I'll peel the potatoes now," Meg said. "Right away quick. Should I make instant pudding for dessert?"
"That would be nice." Her mother followed her out of the bedroom, giving her a quick little pat on the fanny. "I'm tired, too," she said. "And hot. We all are." It was her way of apologizing.
In the kitchen, Meg carried the potatoes to the table next to the window so she could look out while she worked. Day's-end traffic filled the street. She could see a whole block of Brookfield Avenue from their fourth-floor apartment. Meg watched the Superette at the corner, where her brother, Bill, worked after school. She wanted to see him the minute he came out. She knew she'd be able to tell by the way he walked if he had great news to tell them ... at last.
"Anything interesting happen today?" Her mother's voice was cheerful, the annoyance of a few minutes earlier firmly smoothed away. Her look-I'm-in-control-again voice, Bill called it. He said her sudden spurts of rage were little explosions designed to prevent the big one. "What big one?" Meg had asked, but he just shook his head as if she were too young to know.
"Nothing much," Meg said, her eyes on the street below. "I got a B-plus on the final history test. And Gracie stayed home with cramps. Her period," Meg added, just in case her mother didn't understand. It was irritating that her friend could spend a day a month at home with no questions asked, while her own mother made her go to school when she felt every bit as bad.
"And I'm going to be on the Jefferson Flyer staff next fall," Meg went on. That was actually very interesting news, but as usual her mother didn't realize it and changed the subject.
"I don't suppose Bill called," she said as she dipped the chops into egg and then into bread crumbs.
"No." It was Bill's news, of course, that her mother really wanted to hear. She had probably been thinking all day at work about the science award she hoped he'd win, and the university scholarship that went with it. She'd probably hoped good news would be waiting when she walked in the front door, news that would make her forget the unexpected heat and how tired she was.
"I'm pretty sure he's going to win," Meg said. "I really am."
"Little Miss Optimist."
At the other end of the block, the door of the Superette swung open, and Bill came out. He stood for a moment, then turned and started walking up the street toward the apartment building. Very slowly. A bad sign. If he had good news to tell he'd be running — well, no, Bill seldom ran, but he'd be walking faster and maybe looking up at the apartment windows to see if she was watching.
Meg's mother was peering over her shoulder.
"He didn't hear, Miss Optimist," she said. "Look how he's dragging. Or else he did hear, and he lost."
Meg longed to tell her mother about the dream she'd had just a few minutes ago, but she didn't dare. Even if her mother read everything that was written in the notebook hidden away in the bottom bureau drawer, she'd say the whole business was silly and only fools believed in dreams.
"I don't suppose you know where your father is."
Meg winced at the icy tone. "He's at the library," she said quickly. "He was here when I got home, but there were some things he had to look up."
"I'll bet," her mother said. "Funny how he's always at the library when his family comes home."
"That's not true," Meg protested, but she knew it was. Her father was a writer; he'd already had a book of poems published, and someday he was going to be famous. The trouble was, writing took lots of time, and lately her mother had become very impatient. And, though Meg tried to hide it, she was impatient, too. She loved and admired her father, and she wanted to be the daughter of a famous author, but sometimes she wished he'd stop writing for a while and get a regular job. For one thing, they needed more money than her mother was earning, and for another —
"You'd think he'd at least want to be here when Bill comes home," her mother said. "You'd think he'd be wondering if there was any news."
Yes, that was the second thing. They all needed to know he cared about them as much as he cared about writing. In the last year it had been hard to tell.
The chops were in the oven and the pudding was chilling in the refrigerator by the time Bill opened the door of the apartment. Meg met him and ducked as his hand reached to pull her single black braid.
"You didn't hear about the contest, did you?" she whispered. "Did you?"
Bill shook his head tiredly. "Nope. Not a single telegram, cable, or newspaper headline."
Meg gave a whoosh of relief. "We watched you from the window and you looked sort of sad. I think you're going to hear good news very soon, but —"
"But Ma was sure I'd lost," he finished. "Don't tell me." He went out to the kitchen and Meg followed. "Sorry, no big news today," he said. "How was the day on the real estate front?"
Meg's mother smiled at his teasing tone. It was the first time she'd smiled since she'd come home.
"Well, no news is good news," she said, showing that she could be Mrs. Optimist when she wanted to be. "And my day on the real estate front was like any other day. Filing, typing, and looking for lost salesmen. I'd much rather stock shelves at the Superette and carry bags of groceries for nice old ladies."
Bill helped himself to a stalk of celery. "You wouldn't if you tried it," he said. "One of those nice old ladies swore at me this afternoon because I didn't move fast enough."
"That's terrible." Their mother dropped lettuce into the greens basket and turned the handle fiercely. "Did you run into Mr. — the principal, what's his name — today?"
"Corcoran, Ma. Mr. Corcoran. And, believe me, if he had anything important to tell me, he wouldn't mention it casually in the hall or the cafeteria."
"He'd call you into his office," Meg said. "And shake your hand."
Bill shrugged. "Probably. And he might call Dad and Ma to extend his congratulations for having such a terrific kid."
Their mother laughed. Meg, standing on one foot and then the other, felt left out. She doubted that her mother's face would ever light up for her the way it did when Bill walked into a room. Meg had to learn to accept the difference, the way she accepted having her father's straight hair and long feet. Bill and their mother looked alike — light blue eyes, curly brown hair — and they had fun together. No use asking for reasons.
When Bill left the kitchen, another celery stalk in his hand, Meg followed him down the hall to his bedroom. Maybe their mother had been fooled by his teasing, but not Meg. She knew he was unhappy, and she knew, the way she knew many other things about him, that he had just about given up hope that he'd win the scholarship.
"About the contest." She spoke in a whisper. He had thrown himself on his bed with his back to the door.
"What about it?"
"I have this funny feeling," Meg began cautiously. "I really think you're going to win the scholarship. I mean, I'm practically sure of it."
Bill rolled over and raised an eyebrow. "You're sure," he repeated. "Where did you get your information, smart kid?"
"I just know. I think maybe tomorrow is the day you'll find out. Mr. Corcoran will call you into his office and hand you a big tan envelope with your name on it in blue letters." Meg stopped, confused, as Bill stared at her. "I mean — I just mean that I have this feeling it will happen."
Meg waited for questions. She should never have described the envelope. But Bill just yawned and fell back on the pillows. "Well, I hope you're right, old girl," he said. "Because if you're not, you're going to have me around for a long time. No prize, no college — and that's a fact."
Meg slipped out of the room and closed the door behind her. Bill wanted the scholarship so much. He was smart and ambitious and he had to go to college. She understood all that. She even understood his wanting to get away from home. And she wanted him to be happy. But she hated to think what it would be like when he was gone.
There'll be just me, she thought. And Mama being crabby. And Dad waiting to be famous. And the dreams.
Meg went into her bedroom and took the notebook from the bottom bureau drawer. There was a ballpoint pen clipped to the cover. She opened the book to a blank page and began to write.
June 8, 1982. Sunshiny hallway. Lockers on both sides. I look through an open door and see a man sitting behind a desk. He's talking to Bill. Gives him a big tan envelope and leans across the desk to shake hands. I yell, what is it? Bill turns around and holds up the envelope. His name in blue: William Korshak. He's smiling. I reach for the envelope and Mama wakes me up.
Meg started to close the book, then opened it and added one more line:
Mr. Corcoran has a mustache.CHAPTER 2
A Big Explosion
Meg had been very little, maybe six or seven, when the dreams began. At first she'd taken them for granted.
Her mother might be surprised and annoyed at Grandma Korshak's unannounced visits from nearby Waukesha, but Meg usually knew when she was coming. She'd leave an extra hanger in her closet for Grandma's nightgown and clear a space on the bureau top for Grandma's hairbrush and false-teeth cup. Bill might be shocked when diggers and trucks rolled into the vacant lot down the block to destroy the only place in the neighborhood where he could collect insects and butterflies, but Meg knew they were coming. Her father might be thrilled because the Sunday Milwaukee Journal unexpectedly printed one of his poems, but it was Meg who got up early that particular morning to fetch the newspaper from the foyer of their apartment building. No one seemed to notice that when others were startled, she wasn't.
When Meg was eight there was a fire early in January at the Pancinos' house in the next block. Meg, Bill, and their parents stood at the living-room window and watched the red fire-engine lights leaping and whirling through a curtain of snow. Tiny dark figures appeared and disappeared, and once a finger of flame glowed in the twilight. After a while her father and Bill went out to have a closer look at what was happening, and her mother went back to the blouse she was stitching on the sewing machine. Meg crouched at the window, terrified.
When her father and Bill returned, she ran to meet them. Their faces were red with cold, and there were snowflakes caught in her father's dark beard.
"Don't look so worried, Meggie," he said. "The Pancinos' Christmas tree caught fire, and the living room is a mess, but that's the worst of it. They think the cat pulled on the wires and caused a short."
"And guess what was the only thing Mrs. Pancino carried out of the house with her!" Bill's eyes sparkled behind his glasses.
Meg knew. "The cat," she said.
"Right!" Her brother pulled one of her pigtails. "You're a smart kid, you know that?"
He went off to his room, whistling, and Meg leaned against the couch, alone with her father. He was back at the window, shoulders hunched, hands thrust in his pockets.
"I knew about the cat and I knew about the fire," Meg whispered, almost hoping he wouldn't hear.
He turned to look at her. "Knew about it — how?" he asked lightly. His thin face was shadowed in the gloom. Behind him, snowflakes danced across the panes.
"I had a dream a couple of nights ago. The fire — and the snowstorm — and there was a lady running into the street with a cat in her arms." Suddenly Meg was sobbing against her father's jacket. "But I didn't see the house up close, and I wasn't sure it was Mrs. Pancino. It was just something that happened in a dream!"
Her father sat down and pulled her onto his lap. "Of course it was, baby," he said. "Dreaming about a fire is no big deal."
"But it was this fire," Meg sobbed. "I was standing in the snow and I saw the fire trucks coming."
"No, you didn't." His voice was still quiet, but it had changed. He sounded angry. Meg looked up and saw that his lips were tight under his beard. "Stop crying now, before Mama hears you. We all have times when we're sure we've seen a thing or done a thing before. It's just a trick the mind sometimes plays on us. Don't get so excited."
"But I did dream it," Meg insisted. "Really and truly. And maybe if I'd looked hard I could have seen it was Mrs. Pancino and —"
"Now stop that!" Meg felt herself being pushed from her father's lap. "You're imagining things, and that's all there is to it. Listen to me, Meg." He pulled her around and lifted her chin so that she stared into his eyes. "Don't you say anything to Mama about this dream. She'd be very upset, and you don't want that." He let her go and stood up. "It's crazy to blame yourself for the Pancinos' fire just because you happened to dream about a fire, baby. If you did. So just forget about it."
But, of course, she couldn't forget it. Her father had said crazy, and that was the word that stayed in her mind. It was crazy to have dreams that came true. If you talked about them it'd upset the people you loved and make them angry. She had learned something bad about herself, an ugly secret. That night she had been afraid to go to sleep.
About a year later Meg began the notebook. She'd had hundreds of dreams that year, but a few had been much more "real" than the others. And most of these "real" dreams had come true. Even though there wasn't another as terrifying as the fire dream, Meg became increasingly disturbed. She thought of telling Bill, but if he didn't believe her — if his voice and his face changed the way her father's had — she thought she'd die. She couldn't take a chance. And so, finally, she'd bought a spiral-bound notebook and had begun to write down the more vivid dreams as soon as she woke up. She'd chosen a book with flowers and birds on the cover, but that didn't make her feel cheerful when she wrote in it. Writing was just something she had to do because of her craziness. Three and a half years later, she'd filled more than half the pages. Many of the dreams she'd written down had come true; some had not. In a funny kind of way, the book had become her best friend as well as her greatest shame.
Meg's mind was on the notebook and the latest addition to it as she walked home from school with her friend Gracie Wriston the next afternoon. She could hardly wait to find out if Mr. Corcoran had called Bill to his office to tell him he had won the contest.
"You're not listening," Gracie accused her. "I don't have to let you in on this, you know."
Meg wrenched her thoughts away from her brother. "Yes, I am." She searched her mind for a clue to what Gracie had been saying. "Linda Bell's slumber party. You're the only one in the seventh grade who's invited."
"And I can bring one friend," Gracie said. "As long as it's someone Linda likes. She's pretty particular, but I think she likes you."
Meg waited, not quite sure whether she was being invited or not.
"Well, do you want to go or don't you?" Gracie demanded. "If you don't, I'm going to ask Jean Monroe."
"Sure I want to go," Meg said. "But I have to check with my mother. If it's for overnight, she'll want to call Mrs. Bell and make sure it's okay."
"Of course it's okay!" Gracie's voice was squeaky with impatience. "If she calls Mrs. Bell, Linda will be furious. Look." She flipped open her math book and took out a slightly battered slip of paper. "Give your mother this, and it'll be all right."
Meg looked at the paper. It was a typewritten note saying Linda had permission to have a party and her parents would be home all evening. The note was signed Mrs. J. Bell.
Excerpted from The Secret Window by Betty Ren Wright. Copyright © 1982 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.
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