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Michael turned the case in his hands. There was an old brass clasp. He undid it. There was some kind of a game board inside. It looked old. Michael hated board games. Jeremy usually cheated. Now that Michael was old enough to realize that, they rarely played.
Michael closed the clasp again and heard a metallic jingle from inside the leather case. "I had better get going," he said politely. He set the case back in the box.
The old woman shook her head. "Not until you look at it." Michael shrugged, feeling uneasy. He stared at her. She was really smallnot very tall and really thin. She reminded him of a scare crow. "Open it up. Take a better look. I'm certain you're going to like it."
Michael shrugged again and lifted the leather case out of the box. There was something weird about the old woman, he decided as he undid the clasp again. He would look at the game, but then he was going to go home. It wouldn't help any thing to put off dealing with his brother anyway. Jeremy wouldn't be nicer in an hour.
Michael tipped the leather case, sliding the game board out. He was careful not to drop any of the game pieces that were caught inside the case. He heard them jingle again, but he didn't bother to take any out. He set the case on the table and opened the board out flat, bending over to look at it.
"Ever see anything like that?" the old woman asked.
Jeremy shook his head. He had been expecting an old checkers set or something. This was much more interesting. There were painted scenes on the boardand it really looked like paint, not like printed paper glued onto cardboard. He leaned over the board for a closer look.
"You won't see anything like it. Not everagain," the old woman said from behind him. She was so close that it startled him and he turned as she laughed a little, patting at her cottony hair. "I don't know if there's another one like it anywhere. I've certainly never seen one."
Michael looked back at the board. It had odd landscapes and swirling clouds. The path that a player had to follow ran through a lot of different scenes. The paintings had incredible detail in them. There was one of a forestand he could see tiny painted spiders in webs. There were ornate circles and triangles on it. Michael wondered what they meant.
"How much do you want for this?" he asked, looking up.
The old woman had her hands on her hips. "You probably don't have enough. It's old and valuable."
Michael nodded, folding the board closed. "It looks like an antique. Where did it come from?"
The old woman bristled. "Do you really think that's any of your business?" She was frowning again, her old, familiar, unfriendly self.
Michael slid the board back into its case. "Thanks for showing me. I better go home now."
"Wait." It was a command. The old woman was staring at his face again, as though she was trying to remember something. Michael fidgeted, wondering if she really did recognize him. "How much money do you have?"
Michael shook his head. "Not much. Two dollars."
She nodded briskly. "Done. It's yours."
Michael smiled, surprised. "Are you sure?"
The old woman did not return his smile. "Oh, yes. I was hoping you would come by sometime. I knew you liked games."
"Well," Michael said, reaching into his pocket for the money, "I appreciate this. I know it's probably worth a lot more than that."
The old woman was still smiling. "Oh, it is. But I want you to have it."
Michael stepped closer, holding out the bills, crumpled from his jeans pocket. The old woman took them from him with a quick, snatching motion. He felt the dry, rough touch of her fingers for a split second. Then she was turning around, walking away from him. "Go on, then. And share it with your brother."
Michael nodded automatically and started walking, eager to get away from the old woman. He was back on the sidewalk and a few houses down the block before he realized what she had said. How did she know he had a brother? And why would she care who he shared the game with?
Michael shook his head and walked a little faster, remembering. Jeremy had done more than just ride his bike past the old woman's house. He had played tricks on her. Stupid tricks. He would ring the doorbell and then run, or pretend to ask about a lost dog or cat, just to show everyone he wasn't as afraid as they were. Did she remember Jeremy?
Michael shook his head again. It didn't matter. The game was pretty interesting. At least he would have something to do after Jeremy got finished making his life miserable over not making the swim team. He smiled a little, thinking about it. He wasn't going to share the game with Jeremy. He wasn't even going to show it to him.
Copyright ) 1997 by Kathleen Duey