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When a malevolent creature tries to claim his father as its latest victim, thirteen-year-old Johnny Dixon and Professor Childermass risk their own lives trying to save him.
The noon sun glittered on a million skipping waves. Beneath Johnny Dixon's bare feet, the deck of the Swordfish rose and fell. The engine roared, and the boat's bow sent up a cool, salty spray. Johnny and his father were heading into port now, but their deep-sea fishing boat was still so far out in the Gulf of Mexico that Johnny could see no trace of land.
Johnny leaned against the rail, licked his lips, and tasted salt water. He smiled and squinted at the wide horizon through his sunglasses. He hardly ever wore sunglasses, because he was nearsighted and had to wear regular glasses, but his dad had bought him a nifty pair of dark green clip-ons. They made the whole world look different to Johnny, somehow sharper and more alive than it normally appeared.
Behind him, his father, Major Harrison Dixon, twirled the wheel, and the Swordfish made a long curve. Johnny looked back at his dad, and Major Dixon's tanned, craggy face broke into a wide grin. "Enjoying yourself, Old Scout?" said the major.
Johnny nodded and turned back, straining to see the first flat gray smudge of land on the edge of the world. It was a hot June day in the mid-1950's, with a high blue sky, piles of fluffy white clouds drifting by, and a bright, clear sun.
Johnny was a pale, freckled, blond boy of about thirteen. He remembered the first time his dad had taken him deep-sea fishing in Florida. Back then, Johnny had felt terrified as they headed out into the Gulf. He had a strong imagination, and he could picture all sorts of disasters. Their boat could capsize, drowning them. They could run out of fuel and drift helplessly until they starved. Sharks or giant octopuses or even sea monsters might attack.
It took Major Dixon's cheerful competence at the wheel to calm Johnny's fears. After that first queasy day, Johnny loved being out at sea. He never once got seasick, and he relished the feeling of freedom. No roads, no signposts, no landmarks told them where they could go or how fast they could speed in getting there. Major Dixon, who was an Air Force pilot, said it was the next best thing to flying. Johnny had flown in airliners a couple of times, but he thought this was even better, the swoop and dip of clipping the waves. The boat almost breathed beneath his feet, as if it were a living creature.
Suddenly, Johnny straightened, shading his eyes with his hand. Was there something different about the eastern horizon? Yes, he was sure! "Land ho!" he bellowed.
"Where away?" his dad roared, laughing.
"Dead ahead!" responded Johnny. He ducked down into the cramped little cabin and ran back up with his father's ten-power Air Force binoculars. Steadying them on the rail, he swept the distant, shadowy line of land. Most of it was only a faint gray pencil line drawn straight across their path, but in one place an indistinct little point stuck up. "I see the harbor light," he shouted. "It's, um, about five points to starboard!"
"Aye, aye," Major Dixon said, adjusting the wheel again.
Ahead of them, Johnny saw the thin vertical line slide to the left until it lay straight ahead. It looked no larger than the point of a pin, but Johnny knew that it was really the tall white tower of Live Oak Key Lighthouse. It would grow larger and larger until they entered the bay between the sandy island and the mainland. Then they would pass within a few hundred yards of it. There probably would be people fishing in skiffs bobbing all around it, and they would wave and yell out to ask how the tarpon had been running.
Johnny sighed in contentment. It had been a great five days. Tomorrow was the end of the vacation, and he and Major Dixon would return to the mainland. They would take a bus to Tallahassee, where they would board a train. That would take them up the long curve of the Atlantic coastline, through Washington, D.C., and New York City. Finally, nearly a whole day later, they would arrive in Duston Heights, Massachusetts. There Johnny would have more fishing stories to tell to his friends Fergie Ferguson, Sarah Channing, and Professor Roderick Childermass. Major Dixon would stay another day or two before he had to return to his duties in Colorado.
Johnny's mother had died of cancer years before. Then his father, a veteran World War II pilot, had rejoined the Air Force to fly fighter planes in the Korean War. Johnny had moved in with his grandfather and grandmother, who lived on Fillmore Street in Duston Heights, an old manufacturing town north of Boston. When he had first arrived, he had been sunk in grief, but over the years he had come to look on Duston Heights as home. Now he didn't know what he would do without the friendship of the people he had met there.
"Want to steer?" asked Major Dixon.
"Sure!" replied Johnny, scrambling back to the wheel.
"Here you go."
Johnny took the wheel from his dad. It vibrated under his hands as he clenched his fingers around the spokes. He turned the wheel right, and then he turned it back left. That is, he turned it to starboard and then to port, in ship terms. The Swordfish made a long, lazy S curve in response. Johnny's dad had rented the boat for the week. Still, Johnny felt a sense of ownership. He told the boat which way to go with the wheel, and it obediently turned in that direction.
Major Dixon took the binoculars and went forward. "That's fine right there," he said. "We're on exactly the right heading."
Johnny nodded. Whenever his dad let him steer, he always liked to pretend he was at the wheel of a pirate ship. He felt like Tyrone Power or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., or Errol Flynn. Those were famous movie stars who had made pictures about pirates (good pirates) who had fought against evil governors or admirals. Johnny loved to read books about the old-time buccaneers too. Some were fiction, like Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, with its cunning Long John Silver, and Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood. Others were true stories about real pirates like Captain Kidd, Edward Teach (better known as Blackbeard), and Gasparilla.
In fact, Johnny did more than just read about pirates. Lately, he had started a new hobby. He put together wooden models of sailing ships. His first couple hadn't been so great. Their masts sagged and their lines drooped, and the paint jobs were blotched and streaky. As Sarah Channing had observed, they looked like ships a pirate might pity so much that he wouldn't plunder them. He might instead stop and offer to help them, she said. But Johnny was getting better. When he got back home, he planned to start a new model, of the Hispaniola, the schooner in which Long John Silver and young Jim Hawkins had sailed to Treasure Island.
He leaned to the right to look ahead. The land was closer now. He could see colors, the hazy yellow-white of sand, the misty gray-green of trees, and here and there the glare of sunlight reflecting from the windows of houses or the sides of cars. The lighthouse began to look like a lighthouse, a tall, tapering tower of white against the darker land and the blue sky. Between the Swordfish and the harbor entrance, half a dozen sailboats were tearing along under their triangular white sails.
Major Dixon came clambering back. "Lots of small-craft traffic dead ahead. I'd better take her in, Johnny. You go forward and help me navigate!"
"Sure," said Johnny, giving up the wheel. He took the binoculars and went to the rail again. The major throttled back, so they weren't going so fast. Johnny looked at the sailboats through the binoculars. Many of the people aboard them wore life jackets, as Johnny and his dad did. Some were just in bathing suits.
Johnny turned the binoculars on the Live Oak Key Lighthouse. He swept them up from the base of the tower to the top. For some reason, whenever he looked at the tower, he always felt a peculiar kind of chill. Sometimes he even shivered a little. He didn't know why. He clenched his teeth now, but he still felt his breath coming a little faster and the hair on his arms trying to prickle up.
The tower was clear in the binoculars, its white-painted bricks flaking in places and streaked with rust in others. The gallery—the railed platform that ran around the light chamber at the top—was empty, as always. The light was not on during the day. Gulls swooped around the top of the tower.
And then one of the gulls stopped and just hung in the air, right above the tower dome. It was darker than the other gulls. In fact, Johnny decided, it was black as it hung there against the blue sky. He had never seen a black gull. Puzzled, wondering if it was some kid's kite or something, Johnny tried to focus the binoculars on it.
And then it simply disappeared.
Johnny slowly lowered the binoculars. He swallowed hard. In the pit of his stomach he felt a sinking sensation, as if he were on an elevator that was going down fast. Something was about to happen. He would bet his life on it. He didn't know what it was, but he knew it would not be anything good.
He didn't say anything to his dad about his funny feelings. Major Dixon was a no-nonsense sort of man. It might have been different if Professor Childermass had been along. The professor was short, crabby, and temperamental, but he always listened to anything Johnny had to say, and he would never snort in disbelief. Johnny wasn't sure that his father would be that understanding about something as, well, weird as a vanishing bird. Maybe too, nothing bad would happen. Sometimes Johnny got strange premonitions, and most of the time they did not come true. That was one of the curses of having a good imagination.
Major Dixon slowed the boat even more. They glided right past the base of the lighthouse, which stood on its own small corner of the island. Then Major Dixon turned right. Live Oak Key was what is called a barrier island. It rose from the Gulf of Mexico about a mile from the mainland. Between it and the rest of Florida was a flat, calm stretch of water called Alachamokee Bay. The island itself was home to a community of fishermen, guides, and boat people. They were a cheerful, loud bunch, and they knew the Dixons well.
Johnny heard high fluty calliope music, like a carnival melody. Along the bayside waterfront, he saw people holding on to helium balloons. They were wandering in and out of white canvas tents. The smell of cotton candy drifted across the water, with the sound of laughter.
"What's going on?" Johnny asked as they glided close to the marina where they would tie up their rented boat.
"Don't know," replied his dad. "Looks like some kind of celebration. But I haven't heard anything about it."
They came to the right wharf, and Major Dixon expertly maneuvered the Swordfish into its own slip. Johnny jumped up to the wharf, feeling the hot rough wood under his bare feet as he stooped to tie the boat to a cleat with a quick figure-eight knot. Then he ran back to hitch the stern of the boat to another cleat. Major Dixon climbed out and helped him secure the lines.
A tall, skinny, red-faced old man wearing a plaid shirt and a shapeless captain's hat that might have been white a few years before World War I came out of a little booth. He grinned at them with his few remaining teeth. "Welcome back, mateys! Any luck today, Major?"
Major Dixon shook hands with him. "A little, Mr. Weatherall. Johnny and I caught two reasonable-size tarpon. They're on ice now. We won't be able to eat them, so you're welcome to them."
"Right kind of you," Mr. Weatherall said with a beaming smile. "The Missus and I appreciate it."
"Well, let's settle up," Major Dixon said. "By the way, what's going on?"
Mr. Weatherall made a face. It puckered his already wrinkled features until he looked like a shriveled apple. "Aw, this is what they call Pirate Days, Major. A kind o' carnival. There's games and music and food. It's tourist foolishness." He winked. "Might be fun for a youngun, though."
"Want to go have a look, Johnny?" asked Major Dixon.
"Sure," replied Johnny.
"Get your shoes on and run along, then," his dad told him. "I don't suppose you can get lost on an island! I'll catch up to you as soon as I've paid for the boat and the gas."
Johnny slipped on his boat shoes. They were white canvas with rubber soles, and he wore them without socks. He took off his life jacket and stored it in the big wooden bin beside the marina office. Then he slowly walked down the wharf toward the tents. Lots of people were in costume as pirates, with colorful scarves tied over their hair, big golden hoop earrings, red-and-white striped T-shirts, and even plastic swords at their sides. He saw some carnival games—ringtoss, where you tried to throw wooden rings over the masts of model ships, a dartboard, a shooting gallery where the guns were miniature cannon and the targets were cutouts of pirate ships, and others. Outside one tent, a woman in pirate garb was selling "tattoos." She was just painting them on, but a placard beside her chair showed that they looked like real pirate tattoos: hearts with daggers through them, black Jolly Roger flags with spooky white skulls, mermaids, and lots of other piratey pictures.
Johnny saw a little girl ahead of him lose her grip on a helium balloon. It sailed straight up into the sky. Leaning back to watch it, Johnny thought that now he understood how that strange bird had just vanished. It had probably not been a bird at all. The shape had just been one of these helium balloons that had soared up over the lighthouse and then popped! That was a relief—
"You look like a young man who has many questions."
Johnny almost yelped. He jerked his gaze down from the balloon. A woman stood in front of him. She was very short, no taller than Johnny himself. Her face was wrinkled and as brown as saddle leather. She wore a white turban and a sky-blue dress decorated with embroidered pictures of stars and planets done in silver and gold thread. A brown buckskin belt cinched the dress tight at her waist, and from the belt dangled leather pouches in all colors of the rainbow. The woman's voice had been pleasant, but her face held no expression.
"Uh—hi," said Johnny weakly. "I didn't see you."
The old woman gazed at him. "I sense you have had much to do with the spirits," she said. "I perceive that you are still troubled with many questions. Shall I answer them for you? Twenty-five cents."
Johnny put his hands into the pockets of his cutoff jeans. "I don't have any—" he broke off, feeling something in his right pocket. He pulled it out. It was a shiny silver quarter.
"This way," the woman said, holding open the flap of a white tent. "Don't be afraid. I am not on the side of the shadows."
Holding the quarter, Johnny realized he had no excuse. Despite the woman's reassurances, he couldn't help feeling anxious. With his heart pounding in his throat, Johnny stepped into the tent. When the woman let the flap fall back into place, something odd happened.
All the noise from outside, the music, the laughter, simply faded. It was as if the tent were soundproofed.
A dry, dusty odor filled Johnny's nostrils. His eyes blinked as they adjusted to the dimness. In the center of the tent stood a round table covered with a white silk cloth. A crystal ball the size of a bowling ball was in the very middle of the table. Two straight chairs stood on opposite sides of the ball.
The woman sat in one and held out her hand. "Cross my palm with the silver," she said.
Johnny held out the quarter. He used it to draw an imaginary X in the woman's palm, and then he dropped it into her hand. She closed her fingers on it.
"I am Madam Lumiere," she told him. "The Lady of Light. Be seated, my child."
Johnny sat down on the edge of the other chair. His chest felt squeezed. It was hard to breathe.
Madam Lumiere closed her eyes. "You are not from here," she said. "You come from the north. You were born in one place, but you live in another."
Johnny nodded. That was true. He had been born in upstate New York, but now he lived in Massachusetts.
The old woman frowned slightly. "You do not live with your parents," she said. "Your mother is not with you. She has passed over. Your father, ah, your father has duties that take him far away. You live with older people. An aunt? An uncle? No. You stay with a grandfather and a grandmother, no?"
"That's right," said Johnny.
Excerpted from The Wrath of the Grinning Ghost by Brad Strickland. Copyright © 1999 The Estate of John Bellairs. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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