While thirteen-year-old Rachel dreams of becoming Pike River’s Sunbonnet Queen, her cousin Charlie Hocking dreams of leaving. But both dreams are threatened by the presence of a fierce old lady who lives just outside of town. At first Charlie is more puzzled than frightened by the fact that the woman looks younger each time he sees her. But gradually, he realizes she’s a phantom, a mad ghost who is eerily involved with the Sunbonnet Queen contest. When she threatens Rachel, Charlie decides to stay in Pike River, for a while at least. It’s a wise decision, for with the help of an unexpected ally he saves Rachel’s life on a Fourth of July morning the Hockings will never forget.
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The Pike River Phantom
By Betty Ren Wright
Holiday HouseCopyright © 1988 Betty Ren Wright
All rights reserved.
Charlie shivered as he started up the porch steps of the house. He could still hear the bees humming cozily in the overgrown garden. He could still taste the raspberries he'd sampled just outside the gate. He could smell the piney woods. But bees and berries, sun and pines, seemed to be tilting away from him, slipping and sliding toward someplace else.
Crazy, he thought. Who needs this old dump? But his feet went on climbing the steps, and his hand lifted the rusty bulldog-head knocker. One knock, he promised himself, and then he'd head back to town. He had already started to turn away when the door opened.
"What do you want, boy?"
The woman was tall, at least six feet, and very straight. Her skin was creased and brown, and the black hair hitched behind her ears was heavily streaked with gray. She was old, but it wasn't the round, dimply oldness of Charlie's Grandma Lou. This woman looked as if she'd been dried in the sun for a couple of hundred years.
"Well?" She seemed to scrape up the single word from deep in her chest. Her eyes glittered like wet stones as she stared down at Charlie. No, he thought uneasily, she wasn't staring at him exactly. It was as if she were staring through him and seeing something stupid or silly he hadn't even known was there.
A drop of sweat rolled between his eyes and down the side of his nose. He struggled to remember the sales pitch he'd been repeating at different doorways all morning. "C-Candy?" he stammered finally, his voice shooting up in the way he hated. "Do you want to buy some candy?"
"Why are you selling candy?" The woman sounded curious. "Are you poor?"
Charlie reached into the canvas sack he carried, glad of an excuse to turn away from those shining eyes. "It's for my cousin Rachel's school," he mumbled, holding up a candy bar. "Pike River Middle School. The Pike River Middle School band, I mean. They get to play at a college football game in Madison next fall if they raise enough money for the bus and the motel and ... stuff." His explanation faded off. It was clear that the old lady wasn't interested in his answer to her question. She was looking over his head, toward the woods, as if she'd forgotten he was there.
"You come from Pike River," she stated. "What's it like now?"
"It's okay." What did she expect to hear? he wondered. She must have lived here a lot longer than he had. "I just moved to Pike River from Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago, so —" He took a deep breath. "About the candy. It's really good. Chocolate with almonds."
She plucked the bar from his fingers. "I used to like chocolate," she said. She dropped the candy into the pocket of her ragged gray sweater and smiled at him meanly.
"That's a dollar," Charlie said, "a dollar a bar."
The woman continued to smile. "But I don't have any dollars," she said. "I don't have any money at all." And what are you going to do about it? She didn't say that, but Charlie felt the words hanging in the air.
He remembered the touch of her dry fingers as they'd closed around the candy bar. "I can come back for the money tomorrow," he said. But he knew he wouldn't. It had been a waste of time to come way out here, nearly a mile from the center of town. The mailbox on the highway suggested there might be a customer no one else had thought of, but it had been a mistake to bother.
"I won't have money tomorrow either." The woman bent suddenly and pushed her face close to Charlie's. She smelled like dead flowers. "Now, who is it you look like?" she asked in a mocking tone. "Big eyes, big mouth, big ears — you take after somebody I know. Saw it as soon as you came out of the woods. What's your name, boy?"
"Charlie. Charles James Hocking." He considered snatching the candy bar from the sagging sweaterpocket. A person had a right to take back what was stolen, didn't he?
"You Will Hocking's little brother?"
"He's my grandpa!"
The woman looked startled, then she sniffed. "Grandpa?" she repeated. "Don't be silly! Will is a nice enough boy — better than most in the town. You tell your brother the real Sunbonnet Queen says hello."
Charlie started to ask what she meant, then leaped backward as the door was slammed in his face. She'd almost knocked him off his feet! For a moment he stood there, staring at the bulldog knocker inches from his nose. He could hear the woman laugh on the other side of the door. Then he raced down the steps, across the garden, through the falling-down gate, and into the woods.
When he finally slowed to a walk, he was panting hard. The road through the woods had seemed spookily dark when he'd passed through on his way to the clearing, but now he welcomed the shelter of the trees. They cut off his view of the old house and muted the laughter that followed him.
Laurel Avenue was lined with maples, planted when the street was new thirty years ago. The houses were mostly ranches, some with attached garages and some without. Grandpa Will's had a garage, and the connecting breezeway had been screened in to make a little room. Our summer dining room, Grandma Lou called it. Beyond it were the kitchen, the real dining room, the living room, two bedrooms, and a den. Grandpa and Grandma had the big bedroom, and Rachel had the other one. She was staying in Pike River while her missionary parents were in Africa.
Charlie and his father shared a fold-out bed in the den.
"It's not so convenient, but I suppose it'll do," Grandma Lou had said a little doubtfully, when she'd welcomed them. "We don't have a lot of space here, but we surely do love to have our family with us."
Charlie didn't mind a bedroom that wasn't really a bedroom; he was used to that. Back in Milwaukee, he'd lived with his aunt Laura and had slept on her living-room couch all the years that his father was away. Actually, he'd gone to sleep every night in Aunt Laura's bed, and when she finished watching the ten o'clock news she'd got him up and led him, half awake, out to the couch. Sleeping in his grandparents' den was almost like having a regular bedroom.
The house was quiet when Charlie let himself in. He stopped in the kitchen for a glass of milk, then wandered down the hall to Rachel's room. He had dropped the canvas candy-bag on her desk chair and was just reaching into his pocket for the money he'd collected when the back door slammed and quick steps sounded in the hall. Rachel appeared in the doorway.
"What are you doing in my bedroom, Charlie Hocking? My bedroom is private. I've told you that a million times!" She was slim, with dark brown hair, and snapping brown eyes like Grandma Lou's.
"How could you tell me a million times?" Charlie retorted. "I've only been living here for two weeks. If you told me a million times, that would be one million divided by fourteen days, and that would be —"
"Forget it." Rachel threw herself on the bed and kicked off her shoes. "Just tell me what you want. I don't have time for children today."
"Children!" Charlie wondered if all girls were as annoying as this one. If they were, he'd be a bachelor forever. "You're only thirteen — one lousy year older than I am."
"It hasn't been a lousy year," Rachel said smugly. "It's been the best year of my life. So far. I'm in Middle School. I'm president of my class. I wear a bra." Her glance fell on the canvas bag. "So how many candy bars did you sell?"
"Twelve," Charlie said, relieved at the change of subject. "One lady bought three, and she gave me an extra fifty cents for myself." He pulled a handful of bills from his pocket and dropped them on the bed.
"Well, that's very good." Rachel sounded surprised and pleased. "That's really not bad at all. I told you — a child could do it." She grinned at him, then reached across the bed to snag the canvas bag with a toe. "Hey!" she exclaimed, peering into its depths. "I gave you fifteen bars, and there are two left. You sold twelve — where's the other one?"
Charlie kicked the leg of the desk chair. He wasn't ready to talk about the strange old lady in the house in the woods — certainly not to Rachel. He couldn't tell her that he'd let the woman take a candy bar without paying for it. "What did you do?" she'd moan. "What did you say to her? Why didn't you make her give it back, you silly baby?"
He tried an explanation that was at least partly the truth. "There was this old lady," he said. "She didn't have any money, but I think she's going to pay me later. ..." It sounded weak, even to him.
Rachel sat up and glared. "I'll just bet," she said, her voice heavy with sarcasm. "You ate it; didn't you? That's the same as stealing, Charlie Hocking. You ought to be ashamed."
Charlie clenched his fists. "I didn't steal it!" he yelled. "I'll pay for it myself, if you're going to make a big deal out of it — but I didn't steal it!" He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out two dimes and the fifty-cent piece the customer had given him. "There!" He threw the coins on the bed. "You'll get the other thirty cents when I have it — but I didn't steal your stupid candy bar. You've got a lot of nerve —"
"What's going on here?"
Charlie and Rachel both jumped. Neither of them had heard Grandpa Will come home. He stood in the doorway, looking at them with concern.
"Nothing." They said it together. "Nothing's going on."
"What was that about stealing, Charlie?"
Charlie looked down at his sneakers. "It wasn't important."
"Not important, Grandpa," Rachel echoed. "We were just having a little discussion."
Grandpa's anxious expression changed to a smile. He liked people to discuss their problems and settle them that way. He even taught a class in problem solving at Pike River High School, along with classes in history and civics.
"Well, that's all right, then. I'm going to the nursery to pick up a birdbath," he said. "Anybody want to ride along?"
"I have some phone calls to make," Rachel announced. "One of my committees, Grandpa. Otherwise I'd go with you."
"You shall be known by your good works," Grandpa teased. "How about you, Charlie? Want to come?"
"Sure." He liked doing things with his grandfather. "I'll be with you in a minute."
He waited till the door to the breezeway had closed. Then he turned to his cousin. "Don't you ever say anything about stealing again," he said hotly. "I mean it! You'll be sorry if you do!"
"Threats!" Rachel tried to look indifferent, but her face was pale. She sat up, clutching a pillow in front of her as if it were a bulletproof vest. "I'll say anything I want," she said in a low voice. "And you'd better get me that thirty cents, Charlie Hocking. If you don't watch out, you'll turn into a real thief and spend five years in jail like your father!"CHAPTER 2
Five years in jail. All the way across town, Rachel's smart-aleck warning repeated itself in Charlie's head. He tried not to listen, but the words seemed to follow him as he hurried after his grandfather, through the outdoor display behind the Garden of Eden Flower and Supply Store.
Beyond the tables full of blooming plants, crowds of painted gnomes and rabbits and herds of iron deer were ranged along the paths. Dozens of sassy yellow ducks made Charlie smile, briefly, just to look at them. Farther back, birdbaths were standing in rows.
"How about some ducks?" Charlie pretended it was a joke, but he meant it. He liked the ducks.
Grandpa strode on toward the birdbaths. "Your grandmother would kill me," he called over his shoulder.
Charlie shook his head. Grown-ups were strange. After all, a person could make a birdbath by setting an old dishpan on top of a stool, but the ducks were really unusual. Someday, when he had a house and a yard of his own, he'd buy a whole family of yellow ducks and a couple of gnomes. Maybe a deer, too.
He bent to get a better look at one of the gnomes, then straightened quickly. The creased brown face reminded him of the old woman in the woods. The gnome's mouth was twisted in the same mocking grin. I'll bet she's gobbling that candy bar right now, he thought furiously. It was easier to be angry with the woman than to remember how she'd scared him.
"What do you think of this one?" Grandpa paused in front of the plainest, most ordinary birdbath of the lot. It didn't have a single flower carved on the base, and it was painted a dull gray.
Charlie shrugged. "The blue ones are nice."
Grandpa glanced at the bright blue plastic birdbaths. "Your grandma would kill me," he repeated.
Together they carried the gray birdbath to the checkout window, then loaded it into the trunk of the car.
"What in the world did I do for help before you came to Pike River?" Grandpa demanded. He sounded as if he really didn't know.
Charlie began to feel better. "We can set up the birdbath when we get home," he suggested. "It won't be dark for a long time."
"Can't do it tonight." Grandpa Will swung the car into traffic and switched on the radio to get the five o'clock news. "The birds will have to wait one more day for their baths. This is Saturday, remember?"
Saturday. Cookout night. That's why Grandma Lou hadn't been home; she'd been doing some last-minute grocery shopping. Charlie's mood plummeted, but he tried not to let it show.
"We'll do it tomorrow, then," he said, and was silent the rest of the way home.
He and his father had arrived in Pike River on a Saturday, so they'd had to meet all the neighbors that very first night. Charlie had hated it. He was sure everyone gathered in his grandparents' backyard knew where John Hocking had been for the last five years. They must know, too, that Grandpa Will had arranged a job for his son as a maintenance man in the Pike River schools when he couldn't find work himself in Milwaukee.
Charlie's father hadn't seemed to worry about what other people knew. He'd moved easily from one group to another, shaking hands with the men and smiling at the ladies. As if we belong here, Charlie had thought bitterly.
Now, two cookouts later, Charlie knew the routine, but he wasn't any more comfortable. Saturday morning Mrs. Koch and Mrs. Michalski and Mrs. Drury and Mrs. Gessert would call to tell Grandma whether they would be coming to the cookout or not. Each family brought wieners or bratwurst for themselves and one dish for the group — baked beans or coleslaw or carrot-and-pineapple salad. Dessert was always the same — a big ring of fruit-filled pastry called kringle that Grandpa Will brought home from the Danish bakery. The food was terrific. If Charlie could have filled his plate and taken it indoors to the den-bedroom to eat by himself, he would have looked forward to Saturday night. But he had to stay in the backyard, watching his father and watching other people watch his father. He could hardly wait until nine-thirty when the neighbors packed up their baskets, folded their patio chairs, and went home.
His father wasn't like the other men, and that was the trouble. He bragged about how strong he was, and he talked about how hard he worked at the high school. The neighbors listened and nodded, but Charlie could tell they were bored. Mr. Gessert and Mr. Michalski were teachers, like Grandpa Will. Mr. Drury sold insurance, and Mr. Koch did something at the glove factory. They probably would have liked a chance to talk about their jobs, too.
His father called all the ladies by their first names, even though they were much older than he was and he hadn't seen them for years. Once he mentioned "my five years in the school of hard knocks." That was the worst time of all. Grandma Lou had turned away quickly when he said it, and. Charlie had felt his own face grow hot. Even Grandpa Will had looked dismayed. His father hadn't noticed a thing.
Grandma and Rachel were preparing for the cookout when Charlie and Grandpa got home. His grandmother had cooked a kettle of chili — "for a change," she said — and the kitchen smelled marvelous.
"You don't have to set up chairs or carry stuff outside or anything," Rachel said as soon as Charlie came in. "I'm going to do it all." He knew she was apologizing for what she'd said earlier.
He went back to the car. He and Grandpa lifted the birdbath out of the trunk, and then they strolled around the yard, trying to decide where it should go.
"Did you and Rachel work out your problem?" Grandpa asked. He put a hand on Charlie's shoulder.
Excerpted from The Pike River Phantom by Betty Ren Wright. Copyright © 1988 Betty Ren Wright. Excerpted by permission of Holiday House.
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