THE GUM CHEWING GHOST
THE GUM CHEWING GHOST
No part of this book may be copied or reprinted without written permission by the author.
Ellen’s palms grew damp as she stared into the inky darkness. The light above her head lit only the top of the stairs. The basement lay below.
She shivered, hating the thought of going down all alone. She listened for sounds of moaning or clanking and heard nothing. Still, it was dark and spooky down there and she had the feeling someone was watching and waiting.
She took a deep breath and forced herself to take the first step down. She hated the basement. She’d hated it from the first time she’d come with her parents to look at this house. But no one seemed to care. Now, this was her new home. Her new room was down here and she was going to have to live with it.
Something cold and damp nudged the back of her leg and she gave a strangled gasp, trying not to spill the box of books balanced in her arms. She looked down to see Jasper, his tail wagging madly in greeting.
“Dumb dog. You scared me to death,” Ellen muttered.
Mom paused beside her, carrying a load of clothes to the upstairs bedroom. “Stop staring down like you think something’s going to bite you. I don’t know why you’re so scared. You have a lovely bedroom.”
Ellen grimaced. “It was probably used as a dungeon.”
Mom sighed. “This is a fifteen year old house, not a medieval castle. We met the owners. They were a middle-aged couple who used the basement as craft workshop and guest bedrooms. They never worried about being downstairs.” Mom raised her eyebrows meaningfully. “You’ve been reading too many scary stories.”
“I don’t care. It’s creepy down there. And I’m not going down unless Jasper goes, too.”
Ellen turned to the dog. He was half-Lab and half-sheep dog, which gave him a strange combination of black curly hair and short legs. Instinct to herd sheep made him nudge the backs of everyone’s legs with his cold wet nose.
Ellen pointed to the bottom of the stairs. “Okay, Jasper. You go first.”
Jasper stepped back and whined.
Ellen turned to Mom. “See, even the dog won’t go down.”
Mom rolled her eyes and called to Ellen’s little brother. “Michael, will you go downstairs and turn on the light for your sister?”
Michael had a box filled with games for the computer. “Chicken, huh?” he asked Ellen.
Ellen made a face, annoyed that her little brother was being asked to be the brave one. She started to protest, then bit back her words. Let him go down and get eaten. Then Mom and Dad would believe her and she wouldn’t have Michael to bother her.
“Never mind.” Mom sounded at the end of her patience. “Just go down with her.”
Ellen watched Michael start down the stairs and changed her mind. He was a pest, but she couldn’t let him go alone. She hurried behind him, her warm breath steaming her glasses. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs, holding her breath until he turned on the light.
The sudden change made the white walls of the freshly painted gameroom seem too bright. The familiar old furniture that had sat in their living room would have looked reassuring if it didn’t now sit in this creepy basement. It made Ellen feel homesick to look at it.
The new spot for the computer table was at the far end of the gameroom, on neutral territory between the bedrooms. Even though the computer was supposed to be shared, Ellen never got a turn unless she was desperate to type a school paper.
“Are you always gonna be this scared to come down?” Michael asked.
Ellen wrinkled her nose. “Yes. And if you had any sense it would bother you too, being stuck down here at the bottom of the house.” It annoyed her that a ten year old showed more courage than she did.
“What are you afraid of anyway?” he asked.
Ellen shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t like being below ground.”
She tried to ignore Michael’s ghostly moans while she set her books on the shelf. In spite of his teasing, she was glad for his company.
His sudden shriek set her heart racing. She dashed from her room, expecting to see him being swallowed into a secret doorway. Instead, he was hopping up and down, holding his foot.
“I dropped the box of disks on my toe,” he moaned.
Ellen turned away. “Serves you right for all that moaning.”
Just then Mom called down from the top of the stairs. “Supper’s ready. Hurry and wash up.”
Michael raced ahead, moving quickly for someone with a hurt foot. When food was concerned, he could always forget his problems.
Ellen followed him up the stairs, feeling like a mole allowed out of her hole. She’d been excited when her parents had first brought up the idea of moving. She’d thought it would be fun to move from their house with three tiny bedrooms into something larger. But she’d never imagined this.
She longed to have a bedroom upstairs like she did in her old house where she could be near her parents and hear their murmuring voices while she went to sleep.
She frowned. Another kid lived in her room now, a little boy. He was probably drawing crayon pictures all over the wall where her posters had been arranged so perfectly. She wished Mom had never gotten the idea of getting a house with an extra room for a home office.
Ellen sniffed the aroma of garlic and tomatoes as she turned from the top of the stairs into the kitchen. Mom set packaged lasagna dinner onto the counter. She smiled at Ellen. “Hope this brand is good. We’ve never tried it before.”
Ellen wished it were homemade. It had been a long time since Mom had baked her special Italian lasagna. Between moving and writing her weekly column for the newspaper, Mom didn’t have much time to cook.
Ellen set plates on the table while Michael filled the glasses with water. When he finished, Ellen noticed her glass was only half-full. “What’s the idea?” she complained.
Michael widened his eyes and opened his mouth in pretend horror. “Something snuck in and drank your water. It was probably a g…g…ghost.”
In spite of her irritation, Ellen felt the hair rise on the back of her neck. “Stop it, Michael! It’s not funny.”
Dad looked up from dishing out the lasagna. “There will be no teasing about ghosts in this house. And no practical jokes. Do you understand?” He had that, “I’m not kidding”, look in his eyes.
After the prayer, Mom said, “Guess who I talked to this afternoon.” She paused, then continued, too impatient to wait for a guess.
“I stopped by church to pick up the new Sunday school booklet and met the new pastor and his wife. I asked them to dinner tomorrow.”
Ellen stared at her mother. “We just moved in. You don’t have anything to cook.”
“We have a gas grill in the backyard.”
“And I volunteered to cook hamburgers,” Dad said.
“They have a daughter your age,” Mom continued to Ellen. “She seems like a very nice girl.”
Ellen’s nerves were on edge from spending the afternoon downstairs. She stabbed a bite of lasagna. “Like her, or not, I’m stuck with her tomorrow. I guess I can take her down to the dungeon.”
“That will be enough about the dungeon. And, yes, I would appreciate it if you would entertain her while they are here. I know you’ll be polite.” Mom’s tone was stern.
Ellen dawdled with clearing the table and helping with the dishes. She was in no hurry to get back to her room. After she finally wiped the table, Mom said, “I know you’re tired, so I want you to take a bath and get ready for bed.
To get ready for bed, Ellen would have to go down into the unfriendly basement and get her pajamas. She shivered.
“I could stay up and help you unpack,” she offered to Mom.
Mom shook her head. “I don’t have much left for tonight.”
Ellen saw Dad on his way down to hook up the computer and tagged along behind him. She grabbed her clothes and hurried back upstairs. Mom was still in the kitchen arranging silverware into the drawers. The hall was dark. So was the bathroom. Ellen flipped on the light. The shower curtain was drawn across the tub.
She bit her lip and stared at the curtain, trying to see if there was anything behind it. A little spider crawled across the edge of the tub. Ellen shivered. It was probably a pet that belonged to the creature who lurked behind the bathtub curtain.
Ellen stepped into the hall. “Mom, there’s a spider on the tub.”
Ellen tried again. “Mom, please come get it. It’s huge.”
“So give it a bath.”
Ellen sat down in the hall. “I’m not taking a bath as long as that spider is in the bathroom.”
Mom came down the hall and brushed past Ellen. She held a jar in her hand. Mom didn’t believe in killing spiders, so Ellen figured Mom meant to take it to the backyard and let it go.
“While you’re in there, would you check behind the curtain and make sure there aren’t any more?” Ellen asked.
She heard the bathtub curtain rustle. “Coast is clear,” Mom said flatly. She looked tired as she carried away the jar with the spider.
Ellen peered into the bathroom. Mom had left the curtain wide open, just as Ellen hoped. Now that she knew there was nothing lurking behind it, it was safe to take a bath.
When she went downstairs, Dad was just finishing hooking up the computer. Michael was on his way up for his bath. Ellen didn’t like the thought of being alone.
“When you’re done there, could you check my room for spiders? Mom found a big one in the bathroom,” Ellen said.
Dad looked up with a grin. “They’ll only hide if they know I’m coming. I don’t give ‘em any free rides out of town.”
Ellen smiled. Unlike Mom, Dad was known to smush spiders. “Come look anyway, okay?” she said.
She settled into bed and waited for Dad. While she waited, she studied her walls, freshly painted white, and tried to decide where to put her posters. She could put one over the bed and another between the two small windows that opened at ground level and let in the only outside light in her room.
She studied her closet door. It was dark oak and had swirls of lighter shades where the rings had been cut. One of the swirls looked like a scull with round empty eyes.
Ellen looked away and tried to forget the gruesome face. She stole another look, hoping she wouldn’t see it, but it was still there. She would definitely put a poster on the closet door.
Dad stepped into the room. “Seen any spiders running for cover?”
“No, but there’s an ugly face on the closet door.” Ellen pointed and Dad stepped back to look.
He squinted, then said, “Yeah. I see what you mean. But you won’t be able to see it when the light is out.”
Ellen swallowed hard. “I bet it’s creepy down here when the lights are out.”
“No creepier than your other bedroom. The only difference is that you happen to be downstairs.”
“What if it floods and Michael and I drown?” Ellen wanted to keep Dad talking so he wouldn’t turn out the light.
He rolled his eyes and chuckled. “How often does it rain here?”
“Than I wouldn’t worry.”
He began to scout for spiders. When he reached her windows, he paused with a frown. “You need to keep your windows cracked to let in a little fresh air.”
He pushed the first window open an inch, than turned to the next. “There’s a stick wedged on the side so the window can’t be opened any wider from the outside. No one can get in but you can move it if you ever need to get out.”
“No one can get in except a ghost,” Ellen muttered.
Dad sat on the edge of the bed and took her hand. “There are no ghosts. In a few days, you’ll get used to being down here and forget you ever felt so uncomfortable.”
Ellen bit her lip. She wished she could believe him. But right now, she wished she were back in her old room.
“Just think how much more space we have,” Dad continued. “Mom has her own workroom for her computer and you and Michael have your own couch and TV down here. And we got this house for the same price as we sold our smaller one. This is a great deal.”
Ellen sat up in bed. “See, that’s something else that bothers me. Why did they give us such a good deal?”
“Maybe houses with basements weren’t selling as well. It was on the market for awhile. But it works great for us. Two bedrooms upstairs and two downstairs. You’ll get used to it.”
Dad kissed her cheek and stood up. She heard Michael gallop down the stairs. At least he would be right next door.
Dad turned out the light and she heard him tell Michael good-night. Then she saw him pass her room on the way upstairs.
She lay very still and listened. She heard Michael settle into his bed. She heard footsteps overhead as someone walked directly above her, crossing the living room floor.
It reminded her of being on the bottom floor of a motel. This gave Ellen an idea. She would imagine she was on vacation and Mom and Dad and Michael were all in the room.
She closed her eyes and tried to relax. A sudden thump against the window caused her eyes to fly open. Something gave an angry hiss. Something was trying to get into her room. Maybe it was a huge snake, escaped from the zoo and looking for a late night snack.
She stared at the dark window, but couldn’t see what lurked outside. It hissed again, then shattered the night with a piercing shriek that grew louder as Ellen sprang from her bed.
She dashed for the lighted stairs. They were a beacon of hope. She didn’t dare look back. She had to get upstairs before whatever was outside broke through and caught her.
Ellen heard Jasper barking furiously as she raced upstairs. He was at the front door, scratching to get out. Mom and Michael stood at the window, peering into the darkness.
Michael turned as Ellen ran into the room. His eyes were wide.
“What is it?” Ellen asked, still breathless from running.
“Don’t know. Dad went out to see,” Michael said. “I think we should let Jasper out in case Dad needs help.”
“Your dad does not need help.” Mom pulled the dog firmly away from the door. “With our luck it would be a skunk and Jasper would get sprayed.”
“Didn’t you hear the way it screamed? It was some kind of horrible creature.” Ellen shivered and hugged her arms around her shoulders.
The night was quiet now. Only the sound of crickets broke the silence when Dad stepped back inside. He held a flashlight in hand.
“What was it?” Ellen gasped.
“It was a cat fight. I chased them away.”
“A cat fight?” Ellen repeated. “It sounded awful, like…like…” she trailed off.
“Like your old ghost,” Michael finished.
Ellen narrowed her eyes. “I noticed you got up here before me.”
Dad broke in. “It was no ghost. I saw two cats, black I think.”
“That figures,” Ellen said.
Dad looked puzzled. “No matter. I chased them off. You two can go back to bed. I don’t think the cats will come back.”
Ellen followed Michael downstairs. She was pleased to know he had been frightened, too. Now he wouldn’t be able to tease her about her fear of the basement.
She slept fitfully, waking several times to listen for unusual sounds. She finally dropped into a deep sleep, only to be waked by Mom, calling them to get ready for church.
Ellen yanked her sheets irritably as she made her bed. She wasn’t sure why she was bothering to make it. Hardly anyone would see her room anymore, stuck down at the bottom of the basement.
On the way to church, Mom reminded them about the pastor and his family coming for lunch. Ellen groaned. She’d forgotten all about it. She had planned to ask Nancy over and tell her all about last night. She and Nancy had been friends forever and Nancy would understand how she felt about this scary house. Instead, Ellen would be stuck with a preacher’s kid all afternoon.
At the end of the service Pastor Eldridge introduced his wife and daughter. His sermon had been interesting and Ellen admitted to herself she was curious about his family.
His wife’s name was Anne. She was a small woman with dark hair and a friendly smile. Mary was his daughter. She looked a lot like her mother, with a heart shaped face and brown eyes. She’d captured the top of her thick dark hair in a barrette, allowing the rest to cascade in waves down her back.
Ellen stared at her from the cover of the congregation and realized she’d hate to be standing there with her parents while everyone stared at her. Remarkably, Mary didn’t seem to mind. She stared back into the congregation. Ellen followed her gaze and realized it rested on the back door.
Ellen grinned. Maybe Mary wasn’t as relaxed as she looked. That made her seem more human, at least.
Ellen felt a little kinder towards her when they greeted her family after the service. Mary didn’t wait for introductions. “Your mom told me your name’s Ellen. We’re in the same grade. I hope you’ll tell me about school. I haven’t even seen it yet.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Like what you do after lunch, and stuff like that.”
Dad clasped Ellen’s elbow. “You girls can talk during lunch. We’re going to have the pastor follow us home.”
When they got home, Michael bounced outside to shoot baskets, while Ellen stood in the kitchen with Mary and her mother. Ellen felt awkward and wished she could join Michael.
“Why don’t you give Mary and her mom a tour while I get out the fixings. It will only take a minute to get the burgers on,” Mom said.
Glad for something to do, Ellen agreed. She led them down the hall and showed them the bedroom and then, Mom’s office. “I’m going to watch for your mom’s articles as soon as we start getting a paper,” Mrs. Eldrigde said.
“It comes out every Wednesday,” Ellen said.
They came back through the living room and headed down to the basement. “I haven’t seen a basement in years. I didn’t know any houses here had them,” said Mrs. Eldridge.
Sure they couldn’t see her, Ellen made a disgusted face as she led the way downstairs. “I didn’t know about basements either until we moved here,” she said.
She showed them the sitting room, computer and, then, the bedrooms.
“It must be neat to have your own place down here,” Mary said.
Ellen didn’t want to admit how scared she had been, so she didn’t say anything at all. Instead she thought, I just bet you’d like it if a cat fight made you think there were banshees outside your window.
Mary noticed the basketball posters Michael had put on his wall. “I played basketball on a team where we used to live.”
Mary looked sad. For a moment, Ellen felt sorry for her. It must have been tough to move away from her friends. Then, Ellen remembered that she had moved, too, not from her friends, but from her friendly old room. And she didn’t like it, either.
Mary stopped beside the small cage that held Michael’s gerbil.
“What’s its name?” Mary asked.
“It’s a girl. Her name’s Minnie,” Ellen answered.
“She looks soft,” Mary said. “I don’t have any pets.”
Mrs. Eldridge shrank back. “With such a long tail, she looks like a mouse.”
Mary didn’t talk much during lunch. When they finished, she offered to help with dishes. Mom refused, but Ellen could tell Mom had been impressed with Mary’s manners. That irritated Ellen.
Mary spotted a basketball in the living room. “Would your brother mind if we played with his ball?” Mary asked.
“It’s not his. It belongs to both of us. He’s the only one who plays with it, though.”
Mary looked disappointed. “If you’d rather not play, it’s okay.”
Ellen knew she hadn’t been a great hostess. “We can play. But I’m not very good.”
As soon as Michael saw them, he came out to join in. Mary took a shot and landed the ball in the hoop. She dribbled across the driveway, daring Michael to steal the ball. After a half-hour of unsuccessful attempts, he stopped and wiped his brow. “Wow! You’re really good,” he told Mary.
Any sympathy Ellen had for Mary disappeared. Mary impressed everyone. Except Ellen. But if everyone else liked her so much, maybe they’d rather have Mary instead of her. Mary liked the basement and Mary remembered to ask to help with dishes. Mary even played basketball. Well, Ellen didn’t like perfect little Mary and nothing was going to change her mind.
She glanced at Mary and Mary smiled. Her dark hair framed her flushed face. She was pretty. And that made Ellen dislike her more.
Ellen felt relieved when it was time for them to leave. Pastor Eldridge paused in the upstairs living room and offered to say a prayer for happiness in their new home.
“That should make Ellen feel better. She’s been nervous about living down in the basement,” Mom said.
The pastor smiled. “Then we’ll go to the basement to pray.”
Ellen stood between her parents and held their hands as the pastor prayed for God to fill their house with good and loving memories.
She hoped God was listening. She had prayed last night after the cat fight. And now the pastor had prayed. Maybe with all the prayers swirling around down here, she would begin to feel safe.
As they said good-bye, Mary turned to Ellen. “Thanks so much. I had a great time. I hope I see you at school tomorrow. Since I don’t know anybody, it would be nice to see a familiar face.”
Ellen forced a smile. She couldn’t believe it. Mary genuinely seemed to have enjoyed herself. She hadn’t even noticed Ellen’s sullen silence while they played basketball.
“Yeah, maybe I’ll see you.” Ellen hoped they wouldn’t put Mary in her homeroom. The last thing she wanted to do was babysit the preacher’s kid.
She called Nancy that night. “You wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had,” she said.
Nancy wasn’t in the mood to be sympathetic. “I had to go to my little sister’s piano recital. It took all afternoon,” she wailed.
“At least you don’t have to sleep in a dark basement,” Ellen said.
“That’s true. How did it go last night?”
This was more like it. Ellen couldn’t wait to tell her about the creepy feelings and the cat fight.
When she finished, Nancy said, “I’m glad I’m not you. Maybe you could convince your mom to let you move upstairs and put her office in the basement.”
“I don’t think so. Mom and Dad think I’m being silly.”
“Well, I don’t.”
It made her feel better to have someone on her side. “Thanks Nancy. I better go. I have to go down to the dungeon.”
She took a piece of gum from the pack on her dresser and popped it in her mouth while she wrote in her diary. She made sure to make last night sound as scary as possible. In case her children ever complained about their rooms, she wanted them to read what she had to put up with.
When she finished her diary, she unrolled her posters and began to tack them to the wall. She covered the scary face on the closet with the first poster and added the others where she thought they looked best.
She stood back and looked at the result. It wasn’t as good as her old room, but it did make it look more homey. Maybe she could learn to survive down here, after all.
The next morning, she couldn’t find her shoes. She was sure she’d thrown them under the bed. Now, she was running late and they were nowhere to be found.
She tore around the room, looking under her desk and in the corners. She finally found them in the closet. “Probably some old ghost put them there,” she muttered.
She put them on quickly and turned for a piece of gum from the dresser. She liked to chew during P.E. when Miss Green wasn’t likely to notice.
She stopped with her hand poised above the gum. Last night there had been three pieces left. This morning there were only two. She shivered. First, her shoes and now the gum. Had something moved things in her room last night?
She dashed upstairs.
“Better hurry,” said Mom.
“I couldn’t find my shoes. A ghost hid them in the closet.”
Mom laughed. “That ghost was me. I found them in your doorway when I came down to tell Michael to take a bath last night.”
Ellen bolted across the yard. That still didn’t explain the gum. She was sure Mom would say she had mis-counted the pieces. But gum was serious business and she was sure she had not.
She stopped short at the bus stop as the bus rounded the corner. Mary was waiting there. It was too late to slow down and pretend she didn’t see her.
“Hi,” Mary called. “I was hoping you’d be here. Mom’s going to meet me at school so I can register. I wanted to ride the bus to meet some of the kids.”
Mary nodded. “Good idea.” She would introduce her to the other kids. Then Mary could bug them instead of her.
Ellen turned to two other girls. “This is Mary Eldridge. She’s a preacher’s kid and she’s new.”
Mary’s cheeks flushed slightly at the introduction, but the other girls didn’t seem to notice. They struck up a conversation that lasted all the way to school.
Ellen sat alone on a seat and ignored them. The two girls seemed to find Mary interesting and Mary was having a good time with them. Good riddance. Ellen had enough on her mind. Maybe she wouldn’t have to bother with Mary anymore.
She knew Mary had been placed in the other homeroom when first period passed and she had not joined their class. After lunch, she and Nancy went to the track. She was just telling Nancy about the gum when she saw Mary coming toward them.
“What’s wrong?” Nancy asked.
“It’s Mary. She’s that preacher’s kid I told you about. She thinks we’re best buddies just because I had to have her over.”
Nancy nodded. “Oh.”
Mary smiled broadly. “Thanks for introducing me to those girls on the bus. They’re both in two of my classes and it was nice to already know somebody.” She pointed to the girls. “I gotta get back. They’re waiting on me.”
Nancy had a puzzled look. She nodded to Mary. “What’s wrong with her? She seems nice.”
Ellen felt irritated because she didn’t know what was wrong. She was afraid Mary would change things and complicate her life. And she didn’t like change.
When she got home, Mom was peeling carrots. Ellen picked one up for a snack. She’d just bit off a crunchy bite when Michael came in from playing basketball. “That girl, Mary, is out front with her bike. I asked her if she wanted to play basketball, but she wants to see you.”
Mom frowned. “My goodness, Michael. Why didn’t you ask her to come in?”
“Run out front and talk to her, Ellen,” Mom said.
Ellen sighed. “Do I have to? Couldn’t Michael tell her I’m busy.”
Mom studied her minute. “You don’t look busy to me.”
“I don’t feel like talking.”
“Would you feel like talking if it was Nancy instead of Mary outside?”
“Yes. It’s worse. You’re not being very charitable to someone who is new.”
“I never said I wanted to be her best friend.”
Mom’s eyes narrowed to blue slits. “You decided the first time you saw that basement you weren’t going to like it. And now you’ve done the same thing to Mary. Your snap judgements are going to cause you trouble sometime. And I’m losing my patience with them.”
Ellen decided it would be better to go outside with Mary than stay inside with Mom. Mary was sitting on her bike in the driveway, waiting for her. She smiled. “I came to see if you wanted to go bike riding.”
“Sure.” Ellen didn’t care if she sounded bored. She had thought about saying her bike was broken, but Mom would be angry if she found out. Ellen opened the garage and wheeled out her bike.
The street wound up a hill and Ellen raced ahead of Mary. She paused at the top to wait. Mary grinned when she caught up. She was out of breath. “We didn’t have many hills where I used to live.”
“Where did you live?” Ellen asked.
“A place called Houston. It’s in Texas, near the Gulf coast.”
Ellen nodded. “I’ve heard of it. Did you like it there?”
“Yeah. It was neat. We had a huge mall that had an indoor skating rink. And we were only an hour away from the beach.”
Ellen rode alongside Mary. “I’ve never lived anywhere but the desert. I think it might be fun to live near a beach.”
“It is. I miss it. But I’m gonna like it here. Everybody’s been so friendly and there’s lots of things to do outdoors. I can’t get used to all the trails for biking and hiking. And Dad says he’ll take me horse back riding.” She grinned. “I’ve never been before.”
Ellen felt a twinge of conscience. She had not made an effort to be friendly, yet Mary seemed to think she had. She sighed, glad Mary hadn’t been able to read her mind and know all the bad things she’d thought about her.
She decided to give Mary a chance. If she turned out to be okay, maybe they could be friends.
When they got back to Ellen’s house, she invited Mary inside. “Want to see my posters? I got them on the wall now.”
Mary smiled. “Sure.”
Ellen paused at the top of the stairs. Michael had gone to play with a friend and no one was down there. It was dark.
“It gives me the creeps to go down here,” Ellen admitted.
“Really? I’d love to have a room away from the rest of the house. My room is at the end of the hall and everyone looks straight into it on the way to the bathroom. Mom says I’ll always have to keep it neat.”
“Yeah. That’s the only good thing about being down here. I don’t think Mom will come down very often.”
Ellen frowned as she saw the last piece of gum sitting in a shiny silver wrapper on her dresser. She tried to decide if she should tell Mary about the gum that disappeared during the night. She didn’t know Mary very well. Would she laugh and tell Ellen she should learn to count?
She bit her lip, watching Mary wander around to look at the posters. She decided against telling. It wasn’t worth the risk.
“I like this one.” Mary pointed to a poster of a baby seal posed on the ice.
Ellen grinned. “I like that one, too. I like all baby animals.”
Mary laughed and glanced around the room. “I can see that.”
“Want to listen to some music?”
Mary shook her head. “I better get back. I told Mom I’d be back in an hour.”
“Okay. Maybe we can ride again later in the week.”
“Sure. I have a basketball try-out tomorrow for the city team. Maybe the next day.”
Ellen felt restless when Mary left. She didn’t want to stay in her room and there was nothing to do upstairs. She was glad when Nancy called.
“What did you do this afternoon?” Nancy asked.
Ellen explained that Mary had come over to ride bikes.
“Yeah? You didn’t ask me to ride.” Nancy sounded hurt.
“I didn’t know we were going to go. She just showed up with her bike.”
“Pushy, isn’t she?”
Ellen remembered that she’d told Nancy she didn’t like Mary. She didn’t know what to say now that she wasn’t sure how she felt. “She’s not bad, I guess. She just wants to make friends.”
“It seems like she mostly wants to make friends with you. If you don’t watch it, she’ll be there all the time.”
“I don’t think so. She’s trying out for basketball. She’ll get busy and make other friends.”
“I hope so.” Nancy sounded unsure.
“Hey, I was thinking,” Ellen said, “I hate being down here alone. Why don’t you spend the night on Friday? I’ll have to ask Mom, but I think it will be okay.”
“Will it be okay with your ghost?” Nancy laughed, but she sounded nervous.
“So far, the ghost only eats gum. I’ll let you know if he eats one of us.”
It was nearly time for supper. Ellen went upstairs to set the table. It smelled good up here, like pepperoni, tomatoes and cheese. She took a deep sniff. It had to be pizza.
She looked in the oven. Two pepperoni and cheese pizzas bubbled on a golden crust. She wished her bedroom were upstairs so she could smell dinner cooking every night, instead of downstairs where she could smell nothing, except her old pair of sneakers.
Mom stepped from the pantry, holding a can of corn. She smiled when she saw Ellen. “Did you see what’s baking?”
Ellen nodded. “How did you have time to make pizza?”
Mom grinned. “I have to admit, I used a ready-made crust. But I did put on the sauce, pepperoni and cheese.”
“That’s good, Mom. Think you can open the corn?” Ellen teased.
Mom pretended a puzzled frown and held up the can. “You mean we don’t eat it like this?”
Dad and Michael came in the back door, letting in a wave of brisk air. Michael was holding the basketball. Ellen knew he’d talked Dad into playing when he came home from work.
Dad rubbed his hands together. “It’s getting chilly outside. We’re hoping for some hot food.”
Mom pulled the pizza from the oven. “You came to the right place.”
Ellen finished setting the table while Mom sliced the pizza. Ellen was about to ask about Nancy spending the night, when Mom spoke first. “I forgot to tell you that I talked to Mrs. Eldridge this afternoon. She wants to know if you can come over on Friday and spend the night with Mary.” Mom’s voice was light but Ellen saw the muscle tense in her jaw.
Mom didn’t think she was going to agree. She wasn’t. But not for the reason Mom thought.
“I wouldn’t mind except I already asked Nancy to come over here.”
Everybody was quiet for a minute. Mom bit her lip. She seemed to be thinking. “Okay. If you’ve already asked Nancy, why don’t you ask Mary to join you?”
Ellen swallowed hard. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Nancy thinks Mary is trying to take her place.”
“Then it sounds like you all need to get to know each other better,” Mom insisted.
Ellen felt her happiness over the pizza slip away. “You don’t understand. It doesn’t work that way. I didn’t tell Nancy that Mary might come. Now, she’ll think it’s a trick.”
Mom shook her head. “I’m sorry. I’m not going to tell a nice woman that you want nothing to do with her daughter. Either you include Mary here, or you go over there.”
Ellen felt like an animal that had stepped in a trap. There was no way to make everyone happy. No matter what she did, either Mom or Nancy was going to be mad at her.
Ellen took a deep breath and tried to keep her voice calm. It wouldn’t help anything if she got herself grounded. “I spent this afternoon with Mary and I actually had a good time. I don’t think it’s fair that you’re making me spend Friday night with her. You could call Mrs. Eldridge back and tell her I already had plans.”
Mom’s jaw relaxed a little. “You had a good time with Mary because you got to know her better. She’s a nice girl. I’m sure Nancy needs a chance to find that out, too. Ask them both over on Friday. If I’m wrong I won’t ask you to do it again.”
Ellen felt tears stinging her eyes. She could tell she wasn’t going to win. “If I lose Nancy as a friend, I’ll end up hating Mary. I don’t care if I do have to see her at church every week.”
“You won’t lose Nancy,” Mom said. “Now eat your pizza. It’s getting cold.”
Ellen stared at her pizza. “I’m not very hungry anymore.”
“I am. Can I eat her pizza if she leaves?” Michael asked.
Ellen glared at her brother. “I didn’t ask to be excused.” She took a big bite just to spite Michael. It tasted good. She ate another piece before she left the table, partly because she really was hungry and partly to keep Michael from eating her share.
She finished supper and headed in for an early bath. She wanted to put off calling Nancy as long as possible. While she soaked, she tried to think of a way to tell her about Friday night.
When her toes looked like shriveled grapes, she pulled the plug and got out. Mom and Dad were sitting in the living room. The newspaper was spread between them. She paused in the doorway a moment. “Where’s Michael?”
“He’s downstairs. Tell him it’s time for his bath,” Mom said.
Ellen nodded, glad he had gone down first. A little brother should be useful for something, even if it was only as ghost bait.
She found him standing in a chair in her doorway. She stomped over. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Shhh.” He glanced down. “I kept hearing voices. At first I was spooked. I thought they were coming from the wall. But they’re coming from your heating vent. You can hear Mom and Dad talking in the living room.”
“Get down. You shouldn’t be listening. Mom wants you to take a bath.”
Michael went up for his bath. Ellen climbed onto the chair. She put her ear up to the vent and listened. The heat wasn’t running and she could hear them clearly. “I’m not sure you should have forced this thing with Mary,” Dad said.
“I don’t know why not.” Mom sounded defensive.
“Ellen’s not a little kid any more. We can’t pick her friends.”
“I’m not trying to pick her friends. But you know what she’s like. She resists anything new. She hates change. Remember how she’s acted about the basement. I want to encourage her to accept new things, whether it’s people or places.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Dad said.
Ellen wanted to shout that Mom wasn’t right, but she was afraid her voice would carry through the vent. So she kept her ear close and listened. She knew eavesdropping was wrong and she felt guilty. Yet, knowing they were talking about her stirred her curiosity and kept her glued to the vent.
“I am right. You’ll see. Soon they’ll all be good friends and….”
The heat came on and Mom’s voice became too muffled to understand. Ellen climbed from the chair and sighed. She had no reason to put it off any longer. She picked up the phone and dialed Nancy’s number.
“She’s what!” Nancy’s voice rose to a screech.
“Listen a minute,” Ellen begged. “It wasn’t my idea. Mom says I either invite her here or I have to go over there.”
“I told you she’d be there all the time.”
Ellen sighed. “I don’t want her to come, but if I don’t ask her, you can’t come either.”
“Sounds like your parents like her better than me.”
“No. They don’t. It’s just that Mary’s new and…” She stopped a minute and thought. “You know what I think it really is?”
“Well, Mom’s never tried to pick my friends’ before. But since Mary’s the pastor’s daughter, I bet Mom doesn’t want to hurt her mother’s feelings.”
“So you’re caught in the middle.”
“Yeah. I didn’t think of it before, but it makes sense.”
“Then I’ll come. But I don’t have to like it. Mary doesn’t go to my church and I don’t have to impress her.”
“You don’t have to impress her.” Ellen felt tired when she hung up. She didn’t care if Nancy blamed Mom or Mary as long as she wasn’t mad at her.
She glanced at her dresser and shivered. One piece of gum sat on top, wrapped in a shiny silver wrapper. Would it be there in the morning?
She took out her diary and wrote about her bike ride with Mary and her worry that she would lose Nancy as a friend. She ended with a prayer that God would help her work it out and keep all ghosts away that night.
She woke up to a slant of sunlight spilling across her bed. She stretched and turned off her clock before it began its usual clatter.
A glance at the dresser brought her fully awake. The surface was empty except for the clock. The gum was gone.
She shivered as she pulled her robe around her. What was going on? She looked on the floor and behind the dresser. There was no doubt about it. The last piece of gum was gone. It had disappeared completely, gone into thin air.
If this was a joke, it wasn’t funny.
She reached for the door knob on the closet, then shrank back. She poster had fallen to the floor. The ugly knotted face stared up at her.
“This is spooky,” she whispered. “I’m out of here.” She grabbed her clothes from the closet and dashed to the bathroom to dress.
Mom was in the kitchen when Ellen came in for breakfast. “I’m going to the store today. Do you need anything?” Mom asked.
“Yes. Gum. Mine keeps disappearing.”
Mom raised her eyebrows. “You’re probably misplacing it.”
“I always keep it on my dresser. The piece that was there last night was gone this morning.”
Mom frowned. “That is strange.”
“What’s strange?” Michael came in. He looked sleepy.
Mom told him about the gum.
“It’s probably your old ghost. I bet he lives in your closet and likes to sit there and blow big bubbles, then pop them to wake you up.”
Ellen glared at Michael. “That’s not funny. You’re probably stealing it after I go to sleep.”
Michael glared back. “I am not.”
Mom stared at Michael, her hands were on her hips. “Are you sure you don’t know anything about this, Michael? We’ve raised you not to lie.”
“I didn’t take the gum, Mom.”
She sighed. “I don’t know what’s happening. I’ll buy your gum today, but if you lose it, you’ll have to buy the next pack with your allowance,” she told Ellen.
The missing gum still worried Ellen when she got to school. It had to be Michael taking it. Yet, he had sounded so sincere.
It was after lunch before she had a chance to talk to Nancy about it. They sat on the steps outside the gym and Ellen began to tell her what happened. Before she got far, Mary spotted them. She crossed the softball field and came toward them.
Nancy groaned. “Can’t you make her go away?”
“I don’t know. I can’t be rude or she might tell her mom.”
Mary smiled and paused on the sidewalk in front of them. “I don’t have basketball practice until six o’clock. If you like, we could ride bikes after school,” she told Ellen.
Ellen could sense Nancy bristle beside her. “Ellen was about to tell me about the ghost in her basement,” she said.
Mary didn’t seem to notice her sharp tone. “Really? Why do you think there’s a ghost?”
Ellen ignored Nancy’s irritation and launched into her story. When she finished, Nancy said, “It’s obvious that Michael is taking it. Who else could it be?”
Ellen shivered. “My poster had fallen this morning and an ugly face on my wooden door was staring at me. Michael thinks a ghost lives in my closet.”
Mary shook her head. “I don’t think it’s a ghost. But it is a mystery.” Her eyes were shining. I love mysteries. It’s fun to think of a way to solve them. At my old house, I solved one for my best friend.”
“There’s nothing to solve here,” Nancy insisted.
Ellen was curious. “What was the mystery?”
Mary sat beside them on the step. “Her cat kept coming home with fur missing. There were no scratches or anyting to show she’d been in a cat fight.”
“So what happened?” This time Nancy asked.
Mary grinned. “She was getting into fights with the neighbor’s goose.”
“So how did you catch her?” Ellen asked.
“It took some checking around. We could see it was happening during the day while we were at school. So, we asked around the neighborhood and one lady said she saw a cat
running from her goose one day. I guess the silly cat thought it could catch the goose like it would a sparrow.”
“What did you do about it?” Nancy asked.
“My friend started keeping her cat inside and it didn’t lose any more fur.”
Ellen looked doubtful. “I don’t think my ghost is going to be as easy to find as that goose.”
“Sure it is. All we have to do is set a trap,” Mary said.
“What kind of trap?”
“If you think it might be your brother, we’ll put something on the gum that will mark his fingers. Then, you can check in the morning.”
“That’s brilliant,” Ellen said.
“It’s a lot of trouble for nothing,” Nancy muttered.
Ellen ignored her. “What should I use? I want to catch this ghost as soon as possible.”
“Try making a smear with a powdered drink mix. Cherry works best. When I get it on my fingers, it takes me a couple of washings to get it off and Michael won’t know you’re looking for it.”
Ellen nodded. “I’ll give it a try. Let’s do it this afternoon instead of riding bikes.” She turned to Nancy. “Can you come, too?”
Nancy wrinkled her nose. “I have better things to do than play in Kool Aid.”
“Come on, it will be fun…” Ellen began as the bell rang. They stood up and headed for class. Mary left them and Ellen stopped Nancy at the classroom door, touching her on the arm. “Don’t be mad, please. I really do want to catch whoever is taking my gum.”
Nancy tossed her copper hair. “Suit yourself.”
Ellen bit her lip. She and Nancy hardly ever got mad at each other. She had to find a way to convince her that Mary could never take her place. Yet, everything that happened seemed to only make things worse.
She caught up with Nancy after school. “Aren’t you a little curious as to why my gum is missing. What if it isn’t Michael? What about that?”
Nancy fixed her with a cold stare. “It is Michael. And if you find out I’m right, will you stop listening to Mary’s dumb ideas about finding this stupid ghost?”
Ellen didn’t think Mary had such dumb ideas. Still, she nodded. “If it’s Michael, I won’t worry about ghosts anymore.”
At home, Mom smiled when Ellen told her Mary was coming over. “I’m so glad you decided to give her a chance. I knew you’d like her. She’s such a nice girl. I was talking to her mother about her today. Did you know Mary was a straight “A” student and still won awards for basketball and track.”
Mom’s admiration of Mary still got on her nerves. She wanted to say, Do you know she’s the reason Nancy’s mad at me?
Instead she nodded and said, “I think I’ll make us a snack and something to drink.”
“Do you want some help? I think we have some caramel dip in the refrigerator.”
“No thanks. I can find something.” Mom never offered to help when she got a snack for Nancy.
Ellen glanced around. Mom usually left gum on the kitchen counter when she came back from the store. If she’d forgotten it, the trap wouldn’t work. “Did you remember my gum?” Ellen asked.
“Oh, yes. It’s still in my purse.” Mom dug out a double pack. “Why don’t you offer some to Mary?”
Ellen shrugged. “Okay. Thanks for getting it.”
Mom smiled. “I’ll be in my office if you need anything.”
When Mary showed up, Ellen poured them each a glass of juice. Then, she held up a powdered mix. “How do we do this?” she asked.
“Do you have a paper plate?”
“Let’s experiment with making a paste and see how thick to make it. Then you can mix it tonight and smear it on the gum before you go to bed.”
They drank their juice. Then, Ellen got a paper plate, the mix and a spoon. She handed Mary a glass of water. “Let’s take all this downstairs so mom won’t ask what we’re doing.”
They passed Michael coming upstairs. “We’re not allowed to bring snacks downstairs,” he chided.
Ellen was trying to think of a threat to keep him quiet, when Mary smiled and said, “If you don’t tell, maybe we can play basketball before I go.”
Michael grinned. “Okay. I was going out to practice.”
When Michael left, Ellen glanced at Mary. “That was great. You thought quick.”
“I know. I’m awful.”
“You want to see something really awful?” Ellen asked when they got to her room. She pointed to the face that was still uncovered on her closet door. Then she traced the outline with her finger, being careful not to touch it.
Mary grimaced. “You’re right. That is awful. You could cover it with something.”
“I did, but the poster fell down.” Ellen got some tape and put the poster back on the door. “I feel better now.”
Mary laughed. “So do I.”
Ellen studied her a minute. “Do you still think you’d like to have a room down in a basement?”
Mary bit her lip, then said, “Yeah. I like being with my parents, but I don’t get much time alone. Mom’s always asking me to help with something. If I’m not at school, I’m helping her make sandwiches for a tea or helping in the nursery at church. I guess that’s why I started playing sports. It’s hard when everyone expects you to be helpful all the time.”
“I guess it would be hard. My mom would pass out if I offered to do all that stuff.” Ellen understood now why Mom liked Mary so much. Yet, Mary didn’t seem to like everything she did.
“From what I heard she wouldn’t pass out. Mom heard they couldn’t have run vacation church school without you last year.” Mary grinned. “You were everywhere all at once. You were in the kitchen, on the playground and helping with crafts, a human tornado.”
“I guess each of our mother’s hear the best when it’s good things about somebody else’s kid. But that was different. I like little kids and I wanted to be there. I’m gonna teach kindergarten after I go to college.”
Mary looked thoughtful. “I don’t know what I want to do. She smiled. “I don’t want to be a kindergarten teacher.”
“I was hoping you’d want to be a detective.” Ellen turned to the things they had set on her dresser. She pulled
the gum from her pocket. “So how do we do this?”
“Let’s put a teaspoon of powder and a couple of drops of water on the plate and see how thick it is.”
They experimented until they had a thin paste. “Tonight, all you have to do is mix it like this and put it on the gum,” Mary said.
Ellen frowned. “Do you think he’s watching?”
“Who? Michael?” Mary glanced out the doorway.
“No. The ghost. What if there really is a ghost who lives in the closet and he’s watching us right now?”
“Listen, Ellen, I’ve watched a lot of shows and read a lot of mysteries. One thing they have in common is that there’s always a logical explanation. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for this, too.”
Ellen caught her lip between her teeth, trying to decide if what she wanted to say would sound stupid. “Do you think ghosts have to listen to God?”
Mary looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Well, your dad prayed that our house would have good memories and I pray every night that the basement isn’t haunted. But what if the ghost doesn’t want to leave?”
“He’d have to if God told him to.” Mary sounded so sure that Ellen had to smile.
“I hope you’re right. And I hope I catch Michael with stains on his fingers tomorrow. Boy, will Mom be mad if I prove Michael lied about taking my gum.”
“Speaking of Michael, I told him I’d play basketball if he didn’t tell about the drink mix.”
“Oh yeah. Let’s go up. I’ll be the cheerleader since I’m lousy at basketball,” Ellen said.
After a half-hour of playing, it was time for Mary to go home for supper. Ellen went in to set the table. She noticed Mom had a frozen pizza in the oven. “Running late on your deadline, huh?” Ellen asked.
Mom looked frazzled. “I have until eight o’clock to fax in this piece and I’m not even half done. I’ll have to work hard after supper.”
“What’s for desert?” Michael had come inside. He looked around hopefully.
“Ice cream.” Mom’s voice had that, I can’t do everything sound.
Ellen shrugged. “We like ice cream.”
“Thanks I appreciate your understanding. Can you two clean up the dishes tonight, so I can get the article finished?”
Ellen nodded. “No problem.”
Mom gave her a quick hug. “You’re a good sport.”
Ellen thought about saying, If I’m such a good sport, why do you keep reminding me how wonderful Mary is? But Mom didn’t seem in the mood for a discussion, so she didn’t ask.
After they cleaned the kitchen, Michael stayed upstairs to get help with homework from Dad.
Ellen had left her homework in her room. She needed to go down and work on her English project. She paused at the top of the stairs and felt the familiar shiver creep down her spine. She wished she’d brought her work upstairs before supper.
She took a deep breath and wished, for the hundredth time, the basement didn’t give her the creeps. She thought about staying upstairs until Michael went down. Unfortunately, she might not have time to finish her homework. And tomorrow, she didn’t think Miss Green would believe a ghost was a good reason for not finishing homework.
She began to pray. When she reached her room, she could feel her heart thumping. Still, she had gotten there safely and there was no sign that anything was awry.
Then, she saw the poster. When Mary was over, she had taped it carefully over the ugly face on her closet door. Now pieces of it were scattered beside the door amidst a tangle of tape.
She stared in disbelief. It didn’t just fall off the door. Something pulled it down and tore it to pieces. That something didn’t want the face on the door covered.
The closet door was ajar. Ellen stared at it, frozen where she stood, wondering if she would ever be able to open it again.
Suddenly, the door began to inch open. Ellen screamed. Her hand flew to her throat as something slowly emerged from the inky blackness of the closet.
Ellen was ready to turn and run when she recognized Jasper’s black nose. He slunk from the closet, tail between his legs, as it always was when he knew he’d done something wrong.
“What have you been up to?” Her voice, choked by relief, came out as a gasp.
She heard Dad’s footsteps on the stairs. “Is Jasper down there?”
She leaned against her doorframe and stared at the dog. “Yes. He scared me half to death.”
Dad reached her room. “What did he do?”
Ellen pointed at the tattered pieces of poster. Then she laughed. Jasper had a piece of tape stuck across the top of his nose. He rubbed his nose on the carpet in a unsuccessful effort to rid himself of the tape.
Dad bent and pulled off the tape. Jasper yelped, then wagged his tail in gratitude.
Ellen collected the scraps of what had been a poster of kittens batting at candy canes on a Christmas tree. The candy canes had been scented with peppermint. The smell was strong near the closet.
“I think I know why Jasper did this.” Ellen held the scraps for Dad to sniff.
Dad nodded. “He thought it was food.”
Michael trotted downstairs. “Hey. What’s going on?
“Jasper tore up my poster. Now, I’ve got the problem of this ugly face staring at me again,” Ellen said.
Dad glanced around at the room. “Put up another poster. Just make sure you keep ones that smell good out of Jasper’s reach.”
Ellen took a poster of a puppy chewing an old shoe from above her bed and taped it on the door. “I hope that shoe is not a scratch ‘n sniff,” Dad said.
“Yeah. Jasper would love that,” Michael said.
Ellen shook her head. “It’s not.”
Dad turned to go. “You come with me, Jasper. You’ve been a bad dog.”
Ellen caught Dad’s sleeve. “I hate living down here by myself.”
“By yourself? What am I?” Michael asked.
Ellen wrinkled her nose at him. “I’m not allowed to say.”
Dad gave Ellen a gentle hug. “You’ve just had a scare. But it could be explained. So, there’s nothing to worry about. Nothing bad is going to happen. Start working on your homework and you’ll get your mind off being scared.”
Dad took Jasper upstairs. Nothing bad had happened. Nothing except having her gum disappear every night. Perhaps, Dad was right. Perhaps, even the missing gum could be explained.
She finished her homework and got ready for bed. Before she turned out the light, she smeared red powdered drink mix and water across a wrapped piece of gum. She put the rest of the gum in her drawer and crawled into bed.
She lay awake a long time, listening for someone to come into her room. She heard Michael tossing in his bed. He’d slept restlessly since they had moved.
Just as she got sleepy, she thought she heard a rustling noise near her window. She sat up and looked. She saw nothing but a gentle breeze stirring her curtain. She lay back and felt her eyelids grow heavy.
In the morning, sunlight streamed across her bed. She sat up and grabbed for her glasses. Next to them, on the dresser, there was a smeared trail of red powder. It disappeared at the edge of the dresser.
The gum was gone.
Ellen checked the drawer. The rest of the pack was safely stored away. But where was the piece she had left on top?
She hurried to Michael’s room. He was just waking up.
“I put pink nail polish on your nails while you were sleeping last night,” she said.
“Huh?” Michael sat up and inspected his fingers.
Ellen took a close look. His fingers were not stained with red drink mix. She felt disappointed.
“I was just kidding about the nail polish. It’s time to get up,” she said.
Michael plopped back onto his pillow. “Very funny.”
When she got to school, she found Nancy waiting for the bell. She hurried over to her. “It wasn’t Michael,” Ellen said.
“He’s not the one taking my gum. His fingers were clean this morning. At least as clean as they ever are.”
“Are you still on that ghost thing?”
“Yeah. My gum was missing again this morning.”
Nancy bit her lip. “That’s really weird. If your basement is haunted, I don’t want to spend the night at your house tonight.”
Ellen was sorry she said anything. Before she could argue, she saw Mary hurrying toward them. “I missed the bus this morning, so Mom gave me a ride. I’ve been dying to know what happened with the gum. Was it Michael?”
Ellen shook her head.
“I’ve been thinking,” Mary said, “don’t you have a dog?”
“Is he tall enough to reach the dresser if he stands on his hind legs?”
Ellen thought a minute. “Yeah. I think he could.”
“Then maybe he’s taking the gum.” Mary looked pleased with her suggestion.
“Maybe. It’s possible,” Ellen admitted. She thought of the poster. “He does like things that smell good.”
“It’s simple then. Keep him out of your room all night and see if the gum is still there.”
“Okay. We can do that tonight.” Ellen turned to Nancy. “Please come. We can sleep on sleeping bags in the gameroom and close my door all night. Don’t you want to find out who’s taking the gum?”
Nancy looked torn. “She shot Mary an irritated look, but Ellen could tell her curiosity was winning.
“I’ll come. But there better not be any ghost.”
When Ellen got home, she pulled Michael away from the banana he was peeling. “We’ve got to check under your bed.”
“Why?” he asked.
“I think Jasper’s been taking my gum. In our old house, he always hid the things he stole under your bed.”
She paused at his doorway. “You check. “There might be spiders or smelly tennis shoes under there with the gum.”
Michael shrugged and crawled under the bed. He began to toss out socks, a chewed homework paper, two chewed erasers and a yellow tennis ball.
He crawled out. “Jasper still hides his stuff under here, but there’s no gum wrappers.”
“Okay. Thanks for looking. I wonder what he’s doing with the wrappers.”
“Maybe he eats them.”
She shuddered. “I hope not.”
She watched Jasper closely that afternoon for any signs of a stomach ache. He bounced around the house, offering the tennis ball to anyone who would play with him. After awhile, Ellen quit worrying about him. He didn’t seem sick. But where was the gum?
Mary and Nancy came after supper. When it was time to spread their sleeping bags and watch television, Mary took a piece of thread from her overnight bag. “We need to know if anyone goes into your room tonight. So, we’ll tape this piece of tiny thread across the bottom of the door. If it’s broken in the morning, we’ll know the door was opened.”
“That’s brilliant,” Ellen said.
Mary grinned. “When you’ve gotten everything you need from your room, we’ll seal it for the night.”
Ellen laughed. “That sounds so official.”
Nancy and Mary followed her to her room to get her pajamas and flashlight. “I guess I’m done for the night,” Ellen said.
Nancy glanced around. “Where’s the gum?”
Ellen slapped her forehead. “I almost forgot.” She took a piece out of the drawer and set the shiny offering on the dresser.
Mary shivered. “It’s cold in here.”
“Yeah. Dad cracked the windows open so it won’t get stuffy. Since we’re not sleeping in here tonight, I can close them.” She slid the windows shut and they taped the door closed.
Jasper settled beside them while they watched television. Nancy had put her sleeping bag in the middle, which made it harder to talk to Mary, but Ellen didn’t dare object. After awhile they began to get sleepy.
Jasper rolled over with a sigh and settled into a deep sleep.
“He can’t open doors, can he?” Mary asked sleepily.
“I don’t think so,” Ellen mumbled back.
Nancy was the first one awake in the morning. She shook Ellen. “Where’s Jasper? He’s not here.”
Ellen sat up and looked around. “Let’s check the door.”
By now, Mary was sitting up. She climbed out of her sleeping bag and joined them. The thread was still taped across the bottom of the door. Mary tore it off.
Ellen paused, hand on the doorknob. Nancy nudged her. “Go on. See if the gum’s gone.”
Ellen took a deep breath and opened the door. The gum sat where she had left it. There had been no ghost last night.
“We’ve done it,” Mary cried. “We’ve found the gum thief.”
Ellen frowned, not feeling as relieved as she should. “I still wonder where he’s hidden the wrappers. It’s odd we can’t find them.”
“He probably buried them,” Nancy said.
Ellen nodded. “Maybe so.”
Jasper was in the kitchen with Mom. He was begging for bites of the pancakes she was cooking. “We think Jasper’s been stealing my gum,” Ellen said.
“Really?” Mom said.
They explained how they had kept Jasper out of the room. “I don’t like shutting my door at night. Could you keep him upstairs?” Ellen asked.
“Sure. I’ll shut him in my room,” Mom said.
They carried their plates to the table. “I guess you feel better now that you don’t have to worry about ghosts anymore,” Nancy told Ellen.
“Yeah. I guess I do.”
“Maybe you could come over for awhile.” Nancy turned to Mary. “I’d ask you too, but I’m sure you have to practice your basketball or something.”
For a moment, Mary looked hurt. Then she said quickly, “Yeah. I do have a game tonight.”
The phone rang.
“It’ your mom,” Mom told Nancy.
Nancy was excited when she came back. “Mom’s found a hurt bird. She’s taking it to the vet. Want to come along?” she asked Ellen.
Ellen shook her head.
Nancy nearly flew out the door. “I’ll talk to you later,” she called.
Mary laughed. “You’ve been replaced by a bird.”
Ellen nodded. “Nancy loves animals and she feels sorry for anything or anyone who’s hurt.” She bit her lip, then added, “She’s a good friend once she decides she likes you. You gotta give her a little time, okay?”
Mary stared at her last bite of pancake. “I’ve tried to be nice to her.”
“I know. It’s not that she doesn’t like you. It’s that she doesn’t want me to like you. We’ve been friends for a long time. She’s jealous, that’s all.”
“You think that will change? I don’t want to cause trouble.”
They put their dishes in the kitchen and Ellen said, “You want to skate? I’ve got some roller blades.”
“Sure. I’ll get mine and come back.” Mary looked happy again.
They skated until lunchtime. Mary invited Ellen over for lunch. “I’ll put my skates in my closet and be back up,” Ellen said.
It was warm in her room. The autumn sun streamed into the low window. Ellen cracked them both open again before Dad could complain.
She jumped as she felt Jasper’s wet nose nudge the back of her leg. “Sorry, you’re not allowed in my room anymore.”
She closed her door and met Mary upstairs.
Mary’s mother greeted them when they got to her house. She’d made finger sandwiches cut into triangles and rectangles and red punch. “Do you always have fancy lunches?” Ellen whispered to Mary.
Mary flushed. “No. She wants to impress you.”
“Me?” Ellen squeaked. “Why?”
Mary’s mother joined them for lunch before Mary could answer. “I hear you like to work in the nursery. Would you like to help during the Sunday night services?”
Mrs. Eldridge smiled. “I knew we could count on you. Mary has agreed to help, too. She’s helped in the nursery since she was barely older than the children she took care of. She never complains about helping out. Once she even had to miss a basketball game because our nursery worker got sick and we couldn’t cancel our womens’ retreat.”
“She’s a good sport,” Ellen agreed.
Mrs. Eldridge beamed. “I’m very proud of Mary. She’s a perfect daughter, never one to get into trouble, even when she was a very little girl.”
“I wish my Mom could say the same about me. I was forever picking on Michael.”
They changed the subject, talking about school and moving and the church. Mary didn’t say much. Her mother chatted on, not seeming to notice.
After lunch Mary walked Ellen back to her house. “I’m sorry about Mom.”
“Why?” Ellen was curious.
“She embarrasses me when she goes on about what a perfect angel I am. Sometimes I feel like doing something bad just to prove I’m human. I never do because I’m afraid of making her disappointed in me.”
Ellen stared at her, not knowing what to say. “Is it really that bad?”
Mary nodded. Tears filled her eyes.
“I never realized what a good thing it is to get in trouble sometimes. I think I’ll go home and put a virus in one of Michael’s computer games,” Ellen said.
Ellen was glad to hear Mary laugh. “Maybe that’s my problem. I need a little brother to torment.”
“I’ll sell you one cheap.”
Mary left with a smile, but Ellen still felt bad about how she felt.
Nancy called after supper. She talked excitedly about the injured bird before stopping to catch her breath. Then she asked, “What did you do today?”
Ellen felt the answer stick in her throat. “I just hung around.” She decided to change the subject. “Did the veterinarian say the bird would know its way home when it got well?”
“I guess so. I didn’t ask.”
There was a pause. Then Nancy asked, “Did Mary leave after breakfast? I figured she’d hang around all day.”
Ellen twisted her hair around her finger while she thought about what to say. “She hung around awhile and then she left.” She didn’t see any reason to tell Nancy that she and Mary spent the day together.
“Oh. I’m having a slumber party next Friday night. I’m inviting you and Lynn and Susan. Think you can come?”
“I guess so.” It was obvious she had carefully left Mary out of the invitations.
“Okay. See you Monday.” Nancy sounded happy.
Ellen went upstairs and joined Mom and Dad. Michael had gone to spend the night with a friend and even though she’d found the ghost, Ellen didn’t like being downstairs by herself.
Mom suggested a game of Monopoly and Ellen was quick to agree. As they set out the pieces, Mom said, “I wish I’d thought to have you invite Mary to stay over. She could have gone to church with us in the morning.”
“She spent the night last night,” Ellen reminded her.
“I know. But she’s such a lovely girl. And she must get lonely being an only child.”
“I guess,” Ellen agreed. She was losing interest in the subject.
“Ellen is going to help in the church nursery with Mary,” Mom told Dad. “I bet Mary’s good with little children.”
Ellen clenched her teeth. I’m the one who’s good with children, she thought. “Can we make popcorn?” she asked.
Mom forgot about Mary. They made popcorn and sipped soda until Mom won at Monopoly.
Mom glanced at her watch. “I had no idea it was so late. Scoot to bed,” she told Ellen.
Ellen hesitated. “Down there, by myself?”
“You found the ghost. What are you worried about?” Dad asked.
“I don’t know. I wish I could be sure it was Jasper.”
“It was Jasper. We’ll keep him upstairs so he won’t bother you,” Mom said.
Ellen crept down the stairs and dashed to her room. She set her glasses on the dresser and crawled into bed. She could hear the wind stirring in the trees and a faint scraping noise outside her window.
Probably another cat. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to ignore the noises. Finally, she went to sleep.
She woke up in the morning and reached for her glasses. Her hand groped the dresser, but found nothing there.
Ellen sat up with a frown. Her glasses were within reach when she went to bed. She swung off the bed and checked the floor. Still, no glasses. She glanced around her room, feeling puzzled.
A creepy feeling snaked up her spine. This was just like the gum, expect, now, it was her glasses.
She grabbed her clothes and headed upstairs.
Mom was in the kitchen, stirring scrambled eggs. “Did you keep Jasper upstairs?” Ellen asked.
Mom nodded. “All night long.”
“Then where are my glasses?”
“Your glasses? Don’t tell me you lost them.”
“I didn’t. I put them on the dresser right next to me, and this morning, they were gone.”
Mom sighed. “Glasses do not just get up and walk away.”
“I know. That’s what worries me.”
Mom scraped the eggs onto a plate. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “You’ve been begging for contact lens for the last two months. Does losing your glasses have anything to do with that?”
“No. I do want contacts. I hate the way I look in glasses, but I didn’t lose them on purpose. Something took them.”
“This is nonsense, Ellen. You’ve misplaced them and you need to find them right after breakfast.”
Ellen wondered how she was going to find something that had been spirited away by a ghost. “I’ll look if you’ll go down with me,” she said.
Mom sighed. “We’ll look after church.”
When they got home, Mom helped Ellen turn the room upside down. They found no clue as to what had happened to the glasses. Dad came down and scooted the bed out of place. “I thought they might be back here.”
He grimaced. “There’s nothing but crumpled paper and a box with rotting tennis shoes.”
“I forgot they were in that box. They used to be my favorites until I outgrew them. I thought there was a dead rat in the wall.”
Dad handed her the shoes. “Throw them out.”
Mom opened the top dresser drawer to look for the glasses. She set the pack of gum on top. “Is this all you have left from the double pack I bought you?”
Ellen nodded at the six pieces. She’d have to use her allowance to buy the next pack. It wasn’t really fair. “The ghost…I mean, something took some of it.”
“Nothing took your gum the night you kept Jasper out,” Mom said.
Dad grinned. “Maybe the ghost was sick that night.”
Ellen scowled, wishing they would take her warnings about a ghost more seriously. There was serious spook stuff going on here. “Ghosts don’t get sick.”
They gave up the search. “Mom and I’ve been talking and decided this might be a good time to replace your glasses with contacts,” Dad said.
“If you don’t lose the contacts,” Mom said.
Lose them! Never. Ellen’s mouth dropped. Then she grinned. “I won’t lose them. I’ll take really good care of them. You’ll see.” She couldn’t believe it. Though she still didn’t like the thought of whatever was taking her things, at least something good had come of it.
She could hardly wait to tell Mary. When she got to church that night, she hurried to the nursery. There were several toddlers already in the room. Mary was helping Mrs. Abbot, who was getting too old to take care of the children by herself.
Ellen joined them. Mrs. Abbot nodded toward a little boy who pulled at his diaper bag. “I think he wants his blanket.”
Ellen dug in the diaper bag until she found a worn scrap of cloth. She handed it to the child, who clutched it and reached up to be held. Ellen picked him up and walked to the block center. Mary was there, trying to prevent head injuries.
Before Ellen could sit down, a little girl pulled on her jeans, wanting her to read a story. It was snack time before she had a chance to talk to Mary.
“Guess what. The ghost is back,” she said.
Mary stared. “What?”
“Jasper was shut out of my room last night and my glasses disappeared.”
Before Mary could object, Ellen added, “I didn’t lose them. I know where I put them.”
Mary frowned. “Then we didn’t solve the mystery.”
“There’s one good thing, though. I get to have contact lenses.”
“But what about your glasses?” Mary was more interested in the mystery than the contacts.
Ellen sighed. Besides being perfect at everything else, Mary’s eyesight was perfect. She wouldn’t understand how important this was to Ellen.
“The glasses are gone. They vanished into the air.” Ellen waved her hands.
“Nothing vanishes. There has to be an explanation,” Mary insisted. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.”
Mom made an eye appointment for the next morning and Ellen missed most of the day at school. It was just as well because she wouldn’t have been able to see the blackboard anyway.
She got to school in the afternoon. When they took a bathroom break, she told Nancy about the contacts. “That’s great. Let me see,” Nancy squealed. She turned Ellen to the side. “You look great. I can’t even tell you have them in.”
“I’m supposed to wear them a little longer every day until I get used to them,” Ellen said.
Nancy nodded. “I remember when I got mine last summer. I was so glad to be rid of glasses.”
Ellen giggled. “I remember. You told your mom no one in middle school would be wearing glasses.”
“She told me you would.”
“She let you get contacts anyway,” Ellen said.
“Yeah. And now you have them, too. You look different, older I think.”
“Really?” Ellen looked in the mirror.
“How about a make-over when you come over on Friday. We could try a different hair style for your new look.”
“Okay.” Nancy was good at fixing hair. If she didn’t become a veterinarian, she’d probably be a model.
Ellen was careful to leave her contact case in the bathroom that night instead of on her dresser. So far, nothing had been missing from the bathroom.
She left the gum where Mom had set in on the dresser and crawled into bed. In the middle of the night, she was startled awake by a scratching noise. Had it come from her room?
She listened. Her room was quiet. But now, footsteps creaked on the stairs. She froze with her chin just above the sheet. It was horrible to have something unearthly wandering the house.
The footsteps came toward her room. Michael had been right. The ghost lived in her closet. He was coming back. What would he do if he caught her awake?
She closed her eyes until she could barely see through the lashes and tried to quiet her breathing. Then she waited.
The steps grew closer. He was nearly to her doorway now. A dark shadow. She fought the urge to shrink into a corner of the room and scream.
Though she lay quietly, her heart pounded in a steady rhythm of fear. She opened her eyes. The shadow floated past her doorway.
She listened. After a minute, she heard a creak in Michael’s room. Poor Michael was sound asleep. He wouldn’t know what had him.
She had to do something, to force her terrified muscles to move. She crept from bed and peered out her doorway. There was no sign of the ghost in the gameroom. He had to be in Michael’s room.
With a wild rush of energy, she decided to lead it away. She dashed for the stairs, screaming all the way. Jasper set up a wild barking from her parents’ room.
Jasper met her at the top of the stairs. Dad tripped over the basketball in the middle of the hall and crashed against the wall. He rose immediately and caught Ellen by the shoulders. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“It’s the ghost. I saw him go into Michael’s room.” She could barely stammer over Jasper’s excited yapping.
Mom flipped on the light. “Maybe it was a bad dream.”
“I wasn’t asleep.” She pulled on Dad’s sleeve. “Hurry. He’s down there now with Michael.”
Dad grabbed Jasper’s collar. “Let’s go, boy.”
Ellen stood at the top of the stairs, shivering violently while she watched Dad and Jasper go down. Mom was close behind them. Ellen tried to imagine what she should do if she heard them all begin to scream. Should she call the police?
Jasper got quiet. Ellen peered down the stairs. Dad had turned on the light in the gameroom. Ellen heard the sound of muffled voices coming from Michael’s room. No one sounded excited.
She crept to the bottom of the stairs. Where was the ghost? Had he vanished before they got there?
Dad was patrolling the gameroom and Mom had gone to Ellen’s room. Dad looked up when he reached the stairs. “I don’t know what you saw. There’s nothing down here now.”
Ellen hugged her arms around her to stop shaking. “I saw a dark shadow. It floated past my door.”
Mom closed Ellen’s closet and joined them. “We’ve checked the bedroom and both closets. There’s no one down here. You have a tiny tear in the screen in your window, but it’s not big enough to let anyone in,” Mom said.
Dad nodded. “The windows are blocked, anyway.”
“So, why did you wake us up in the middle of the night?” Mom demanded.
“And why was the basketball in the middle of the hall?” Dad asked.
Ellen’s heart skipped a beat. “I saw Michael put the basketball away before dinner last night. Something moved it into the hall.”
“Oh, Ellen, please. It’s late and everyone’s tired. Let’s call it a bad dream and stop the nonsense,” Mom said.
“I wasn’t asleep,” Ellen protested.
“I was. Now go to bed and no more screaming. You scared us half to death,” Mom said.
“What about the basketball?” Ellen asked.
Dad rubbed his leg. “I’ll talk to Michael about that in the morning.”
Ellen couldn’t believe they didn’t believe her. Somewhere in the house, a ghost lurked. And her parents were going back to bed.
“Let me keep Jasper down here in case it comes back,” Ellen said.
“I thought he ate your gum,” Mom said.
“I’ll put it away.”
Ellen took Jasper into her bedroom and settled him beside the bed. She picked up the gum to shove it into the drawer. She bit her lip as she counted the pieces. Six pieces were left when she went to sleep. Now there were only five. Whatever this was, it surely loved gum.
She lay awake a long time. She hoped the ghost would stay away if she kept her light on. Jasper slept peacefully at the foot of her bed. At last, when it was nearly morning, Ellen fell asleep.
The lack of sleep made her feel grouchy. She glared at Michael over breakfast. It seemed like his fault somehow. “I can’t believe you slept through everything last night.”
He shrugged. “I can’t believe you went screaming through the house that you saw a ghost.”
“You left the basketball in the hall and made Dad trip.”
Michael scowled. “I did not. I put it away. I told Dad I put it away.”
“Then how did it get back out?”
Michael frowned. “I don’t know. That part’s weird.”
“Yeah. You’d better not act like I’m crazy for seeing a ghost until you can explain about the ball.”
She left him at the table, looking thoughtful.
She found Nancy at the front of the school, waiting for the bell. She was bouncing up and down, trying to stay warm. “She looked closely at Ellen. Your eyes are red. Are your contacts okay.”
“Yeah. They feel fine. I had a bad night.” She told Nancy what had happened.
“Yikes! I don’t know how you stand it there. I’d move out, if I had to sleep in the backyard.”
Mary joined them, listening quietly. Finally, she said, “Ellen did see something but I don’t think it was a ghost.”
“Well, you’re just braver than the rest of us,” Nancy flung the words over her shoulder as the bell rang.
Mary flinched. “I didn’t mean to make her mad.”
Ellen shrugged. “I know. It’s not anything you’re doing.” She wished there was some way to convince Nancy to let Mary be her friend. Still, she knew there was nothing she could say to change Nancy’s mind.
“Want to come over this afternoon?” Ellen asked Nancy during their last class. You can take the bus home with me and call your mother from my house.”
Nancy nodded. “Okay.”
They sat together on the bus. Ellen cringed when Mary walked past. She and Ellen had been sitting together. Now, Nancy sat on the end of the seat, making sure there was no room for anyone else.
Mary smiled shakily as she walked past. She sat behind them with one of the girls she’s met on her first day of school. Ellen glanced back as they got off and was glad to see Mary still talking with her friend.
The doorbell rang as Mary and Nancy were fixing hot chocolate. It was Mary. She was holding a coat. Nancy gasped when she saw it.
“I think you left this on the bus,” Mary said.
Nancy bit her lip as she took the coat. “Thanks. My mother would have grounded me until I was an old lady.”
“You just lost your other coat a month ago,” Ellen said.
“I know. Mom was furious when she had to buy me this one.”
“I’m glad I found it.” Mary turned to leave.
“Come in and have some hot chocolate,” Ellen invited.
Mary bit her lip. She glanced at Nancy. “You sure?”
“Sure. Come on in,” Nancy said.
Ellen was glad to see that Nancy seemed to have changed. She didn’t treat Mary like an old friend, but she was nice. Maybe there was hope for them after all.
While they drank hot chocolate Mary suggested they write down all the facts about the ghost. She took a notebook from her backpack and labeled it, “GHOST BOOK”. “What do we know about this ghost?” she asked.
“He likes gum,” Ellen said.
“And glasses,” Nancy added.
“Let’s rule out suspects,” Mary suggested.
“It can’t be Jasper because he was shut out of your room when your glasses disappeared.”
“And it can’t be Michael because he was spending the night with a friend,” Ellen said.
Mary frowned. “Who does that leave?”
“No one.” Ellen sounded hopeless.
“Are you missing anything else around the house?” Mary asked.
“Maybe there’s a secret passage to the outside. Maybe someone comes in at night to get food and gum and maybe they needed your glasses.”
Ellen shivered. “You think someone’s coming through a tunnel or something?”
Mary nodded. “It’s possible.”
“Let’s check the walls,” Nancy said. For the first time, she was excited about solving the mystery.
They ran their fingers along the walls and checked for secret passages leading from the closets.
Micheal came downstairs and stared. “What are you doing?”
When they told him, he rolled his eyes. “You’re crazy. All of you are crazy.” After watching them awhile, he joined in the search.
They scoured the basement, looking for any possible way to get out. After more than an hour of searching, they had to admit defeat. “Maybe you can only see it from outside,” Mary said.
Ellen glanced out her bedroom window. “It’s too dark now. We’ll have to look tomorrow.”
“Let’s meet back after school and look,” Nancy said.
Her mother came to take her home. Mary was putting on her coat to walk to her house. “We could give you a ride,” Nancy offered. “It’s cold outside and you did save my coat.”
Ellen watched them leave. As much as she wanted them to get along, it gave her an odd feeling. What if they became best friends? She turned away from the door. I’m being stupid, she thought. I’ve got bigger problems here than a silly worry about Mary and Nancy.
She had seen someone walking around downstairs in the middle of the night. But who could be coming in the house? And how did they know about a secret passage?
She would keep Jasper downstairs. Surely he would bark if he heard someone coming in. Then she had another thought. What if the secret door was upstairs? If Jasper were downstairs, he might not hear it.
Still, whoever was breaking in had come downstairs each night to get her gum. And they would come again. Jasper would stay in her room. She would leave the gum on the dresser and as soon as this stranger came downstairs, Jasper would bark and they would have their ghost.
The buzz of the alarm jarred Ellen awake. She sat up and looked at Jasper. He opened a sleepy eye and stared back. Then he stretched and headed for the stairs.
Ellen counted the gum. Another piece was missing. But how could someone sneak in without waking Jasper? She sat up in bed and searched for an explanation.
It seemed obvious. Jasper only barked at people he didn’t know. If he knew whoever was stealing the gum, he wouldn’t bark. He would wag his tail, lick their hand, and go back to sleep.
But Ellen couldn’t think of any neighbors who would sneak in a secret passage instead of knocking on the front door. She pushed the problem to the back of her mind. They would take Jasper out this afternoon and let him sniff around the outside of the house. That was their best chance of finding a secret passage… if there was one.
Mary was waiting for her when she got to the bus. “Any more clues?” she asked.
“No. The gum was gone and Jasper didn’t even wake up. I can’t believe someone is sneaking past him.”
Mary frowned. “It doesn’t sound likely. Maybe we’re off base about the secret passage. We’ll look this afternoon though, just in case.”
They met after school and led Jasper all around the house. They felt the bricks and checked behind the flowerbeds. It wasn’t hard because the flowers were wilted and dried after a month of freezing weather.
“I’ve found something.” Michael bent to examine the ground. He followed a shallow hole that dipped beneath a bush in the back garden. He stood up shaking his head. “It’s one of Jasper’s holes. It ends under the bush.”
Ellen shivered. She felt discouraged. They were no closer to solving the mystery than when they had first begun.
The wind whipped beneath her coat. Her fingers were numb and her nose stung from the frosty air. “It’s no use. If there’s a passage, it’s so secret we’re never going to find it.”
They hurried back to the warm house. Ellen felt her fingers come to life, stinging as she stirred her cocoa. It was getting dark outside. Soon, she would have to go downstairs and face the unknown.
She glanced at the red-cheeked faces around her. Her friends were trying to help. Even Michael was trying to help. Yet, every clue led to a dead-end.
Mom fluttered from her office to begin heating dinner. She touched Michael’s cheek. “Brrrr. You all look half-frozen. What were you doing out there?”
Ellen explained about the secret passage. Mom listened while she heated a large can of sloppy joe. “I think you’re right about Jasper. If anyone came in at night, he’d be sure to bark.”
Nancy’s mom came. She was giving Mary a ride home. Mary paused at the door. “You’ll have to stay awake all night and see if you can catch the thief.”
Ellen shook her head. “I’ve tried. I always fall asleep around midnight.”
“Maybe you could try again on Friday night. You don’t have school the next day,” Mary said.
Ellen bit her lip. Nancy had invited her to spend the night on Friday. But she hadn’t invited Mary.
Ellen tried to think of something to say. She was glad when Nancy rescued her by saying, “I’m having a sleep-over on Friday. Ellen’s coming. Do you want to come, too?”
“I have a basketball game on Friday. But thanks for asking.” Mary looked pleased with the invitation.
After they left, Mom called Ellen to set the table. Mom stirred the bowl of sloppy joe slowly, looking thoughtful. “Has your gum been missing every night?”
Ellen didn’t have to think about it. She’d been keeping score. “Except for the night my glasses disappeared and the night Mary and Ellen stayed over. We shut the door and Mary taped string across it.”
“What do you suppose that had to do with it?” Mom seemed to be talking to herself more than to Ellen.
Ellen answered anyway. “I don’t know. I just know it’s really weird and I don’t like it.”
Mom nodded. “Neither do I. But there has to be some explanation. Maybe we have mice.”
“What would they want with my glasses?”
“Good point. Have you noticed anything else missing?” Mom spoke like she did when she interviewed someone for an article.
“Hmmm. It’s strange. Very strange.” She was talking to herself again. But, at least, she was showing some interest.
Minnie rolled into the kitchen in her little ball. Michael was close behind. He grinned at Mom. “I know. Keep her away from the stairs.” He picked up the ball and carried Minnie down to her cage.
Jasper was close behind. “It’s cute that Jasper likes Minnie,” Ellen said.
Mom laughed. “He likes to drive her ball through the house.”
That night, Ellen dreamed that Minnie had grown into a huge mouse, chasing Ellen in a huge ball. The only thing that would stop her was gum. Ellen dreamed she hunted all over the house for gum and couldn’t find any because the ghost had taken it all.
She woke up and checked her dresser. There had been two pieces of gum the night before. Now there was only one. And whoever had taken the gum had left a dime in it’s place.
She frowned as she picked up the dime. What did it mean?
Was someone trying to pay for the gum? A dime wouldn’t be enough for all the gum that was missing. Maybe the ghost didn’t know things cost more than they did a long time ago.
She brought the dime upstairs to ask if anyone had left it on her dresser. She met Dad as he was leaving for work.
“Did you turn the television on after everyone went to bed last night?” he asked.
Ellen shook her head. “No. What happened?”
“I don’t know.” Dad looked puzzled. “Mom and I turned it off and went to bed. I heard voices in the middle of the night and went to check. The television was on and there was no one in the room.”
Ellen shivered. “At least no one you could see.”
Dad wrinkled his brow. “Don’t start that stuff again. There’s a perfectly good explanation. I just haven’t thought of it yet.”
When Ellen got to school, she told her friends about the dime and how the television had come on during the middle of the night. “It has to be a ghost,” Nancy said.
Mary shook her head. “I don’t think so. Maybe it’s all part of a practical joke.”
“But who would be doing it?” Ellen asked.
Mary frowned. She looked uncertain. “I don’t know.”
“Well I do know that my gum is missing and so are my glasses. I saw someone wandering across the basement in the middle of the night. Now, the television came on all by itself.” She held up the dime. “And a dime from nowhere appeared on my dresser.”
The bell rang to go in the building. “We can’t find a secret passage. So it has to be happening from inside your house,” Mary said.
Ellen grimaced. “I know.”
Ellen couldn’t believe a day could get bad so fast. She couldn’t find her socks for gym class. Then she remembered she’d taken them home to wash them and left them in her room.
After gym, her lock got stuck and she was late to English. And History was worst of all.
Miss Ames called her to her desk just before class ended. She produced a paper marked with a red “F”. “I’m disappointed. Obviously you did not study for this test. You’ve been making “A’s” and “B’s”. Did you think you could let up?”
Ellen shook her head. Miss Ames was not the kind of teacher who would understand how hard it was to study with a ghost looking over your shoulder.
“You’ll have to have your mother sign this. Bring it back to me tomorrow. And I suggest you study for our test next week,” Miss Ames said.
Ellen took the paper back to her seat. Nancy leaned across the aisle. “What happened?”
Ellen leaned over to whisper an answer when Miss Ames said sharply, “Ellen, if you can’t be quiet during class, I’ll have to lower your conduct grade.”
Ellen sat up in her seat. She felt her cheeks flush with embarrassment. She hoped the dismissal bell rang before things got any worse.
She showed Mary the test paper when they got on the bus. Mary sucked in her breath. “An “F”. What are you going to do?”
“I’ll ask Mom to sign it. It doesn’t happen very often, so I don’t think she’ll be too mad.”
Mary’s eyes were wide. “You’re lucky. My mom would have a fit. She’d lecture me about how I wouldn’t get into a good college and then she’d call Miss Ames and drag me in for a conference.” She shivered.
“Haven’t you ever made a bad grade?”
“Nothing below a “B”. I wouldn’t dare.”
Ellen bit her lip and thought. She was a good student. Still, she made a bad grade every once in a while. And while Mom wouldn’t be happy, it wouldn’t be as bad as Mary’s mom. What a lot of pressure Mary must have to make good grades. She glanced sideways at Mary’s serious face and she felt sorry for her. No one could be perfect all the time.
Mom was in her office when Ellen got home. She paused in the doorway. Mom turned with a smile and nodded to the small sofa behind her desk. “Come in and tell me about your day.
I’m getting a head-start on next week’s article. Smart, huh?”
Ellen sat down. She was glad Mom was in a good mood. “I forgot my gym socks. They were dirty anyway.”
Mom clucked her tongue. “Better get a clean pair for tomorrow.”
“I will.” Ellen pulled out the test paper. “You have to sign this test. You’re not going to like it.”
Mom looked at the paper. “Ellen! Didn’t you study?”
“It’s hard to study with a ghost looking over your shoulder.”
Mom sighed. “I know. Maybe you should start doing all your homework upstairs.”
Ellen hadn’t expected her mother to get hysterical but this was less than she expected. “You’re not mad?”
“No. I know you’ve been under a lot of stress.” Mom’s smile was strained. “I’ll be glad when we solve the mystery around here, too.”
Before Ellen went to bed that night, she checked under her bed and in the closet. When she was convinced there was no one hiding in her room, she shut what was left of the gum into her dresser and thumped angrily into bed. Speaking into the darkness, she said, “I’m tired of buying you gum. You won’t get any more, you hear? Just go away.”
Michael poked his head into her doorway. “Who are you talking to?”
“I wish I knew.” She swept her arm through the air. “I’m putting away the gum. Maybe that will get rid of whatever’s taking it.”
“Or make it mad.”
She stared at her brother, wishing he hadn’t suggested that. “I don’t care,” she said stubbornly.
Still, when all the lights were out, she lay in the dark, hoping she had not made things worse by taking away the gum. She clutched the covers under her chin determined not to bounce up and put the gum back on the dresser. At last she fell asleep.
Mom greeted her with a frown when she came in the kitchen the next morning. “I don’t suppose you got up for a snack during the night?”
Ellen shook her head. “What happened?”
“I found the refrigerator standing open this morning.”
Michael looked up from a piece of toast he was inhaling. “Maybe the ghost gets hungry. He likes gum best, but Ellen put the gum away last night.”
“There was no gum missing this morning. If he can open refrigerators, why can’t he open drawers?” Ellen asked.
Michael shrugged. “Maybe he didn’t see where you put it.”
“I’m glad I’m going to a sleep-over at Nancy’s house tonight. It’s too creepy here,” Ellen said.
Mom didn’t tell her she was being silly. And she didn’t tell her she was lucky to have a nice gameroom and bedroom downstairs. She didn’t say anything at all.
Mary was waiting at the bus stop. “Did you get the test signed?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. No problem. Our ghost problems are more on Mom’s mind than my grades.”
“The refrigerator was standing open this morning.”
“Maybe someone had a late snack.”
Ellen shook her head. “Mom asked everybody.”
“Maybe someone left something sticking out and it didn’t close all the way. Then, maybe Jasper bumped it open.”
“That’s possible. Now what about the television and all the missing gum?”
“I don’t know. But I do know we’ll find the solution.”
Late in the afternoon, Ellen packed her bags. She stuck the gum in the pocket of her jeans. There was no reason to feed the ghost while she was gone.
She was glad to be getting out of her room for the night.
Maybe Mom or Dad would solve the mystery tonight and she wouldn’t have to worry about a ghost anymore. She could leave her gum on the dresser and not worry about having it disappear.
At Nancy’s house, they listened to music while they waited for everyone to show up. At last everyone had come except Lynn. They waited impatiently for her to come so they could eat the pizza.
The phone rang. Nancy came back after a minute and said, “That was Lynn. She’s going to be late. She has to watch her little brother until her mom gets home.”
They ate pizza and watched a movie. Lynn didn’t get there until after supper. She sighed when she saw the pizza. “We had meatloaf. Uhgh!” She nibbled a piece of cold pizza.
“Mom bought pizza because she and Dad had to go to Tammy’s basketball game,” said Nancy. Tammy was her little sister.
“I know what we could do,” said Lynn. “Let’s tell ghost stories.”
Ellen shivered. “I don’t want to.”
Lynn looked puzzled. “It’ll be fun.”
“You don’t know what she’s been through,” Nancy said.
“Tell us,” demanded Susan.
Though she didn’t want to think about it, Ellen spent the next half-hour telling Lynn and Susan about the strange things that had happened.
“That’s soooo strange,” said Lynn. “I wish I had a ghost at my house. I’d call a magazine and get them to write a story. You should do that. You could be famous. You might even be on television.”
Ellen shook her head. “I don’t want to be on television. I want the ghost to go away.”
Nancy’s parents came back from the ball game. “We stopped by to see if you all wanted to join us for ice cream,” her mom said.
“Our team won.” Nancy’s little sister wore a grin. Her brown pony tails bobbed as she danced in the hall.
The girls exchanged glances. “Ice cream? Sure,” said Nancy.
“Pizza and ice cream make the perfect supper,” said Susan.
They crowded in the car and drove to the ice cream shop. Ellen could see her house as they left the subdivision. She wondered if anything strange had happened, then decided it was too early. The ghost liked to strike late at night.
They each ordered a different flavor of ice cream, then crowded into a booth to try each other’s choices. Ellen wished she’d ordered the fudge ripple instead of banana nut. Lynn wished she’d ordered chocolate chip instead of fudge ripple. Nancy and Susan were happy with their choices.
Their tongues felt frozen as they stepped into the chilly night. They huddled together in the car to keep warm. Ellen looked forward to getting back to Nancy’s warm house.
They drove into the subdivision and Susan pointed above the houses. A flashing beacon of red light swept above the tree tops. “Look. I bet that’s from a fire truck.”
“I wonder if it’s a chimney fire,” said Nancy’s dad. “We’d better make sure someone called the fire department.”
They glanced down the streets, looking for the source of the light. “It’s on your block,” Nancy told Ellen.
Ellen sat up. Her heart hammered as she strained to see the end of the block. A fire truck sat by the curb.
“It’s your house!” Lynn cried.
Ellen’s parents were standing in the front yard talking to a fire fighter. She wondered why the fire truck wasn’t spraying water. Then, she noticed that no smoke billowed from the house.
Nancy’s dad stopped the car and Ellen sprang out.
Michael turned to her. His eyes were wide. “Wow! You should have seen it. The whole oven was on fire.”
Her mother hugged her tightly. “It’s out now, honey. Everything’s okay.” Ellen noticed that her mother was shaking.
“What happened?” Ellen asked.
Mom shook her head. “I don’t know exactly. I was baking pizza and the next thing I knew, the whole oven was on fire. The fire damaged one cabinet a little, but not too bad.”
“It’s a good thing Dad walked in when he did, or the whole house would have burned down,” Michael said.
Ellen shuddered. “I’m glad it didn’t.”
Mom rubbed her cold arms. “We’ll have an electrician come out tomorrow and look at the oven.”
The fire fighters got back on the truck and drove away.
“We’d better all go inside before we freeze,” Dad said.
Everyone followed them inside. Ellen caught her breath when she saw the black smudge on the wall and the singed cabinet. It was ugly. Still, it could have been much worse.
“Does anyone need hot chocolate to warm up?” Mom asked. “We could heat it in the microwave.”
“Oh, no. You’ve been through enough without bothering with us. Can we help you clean up?” Nancy’s mom asked.
Dad shook his head. “We better leave everything alone until the electrician comes tomorrow.”
“Then we’ll get these girls to bed,” said Nancy’s dad.
Ellen paused beside Mom. “Should I stay?”
“No, honey. You run along. There’s nothing you can do here.”
The others headed for the door. “I’ll be right there,” Ellen called.
She forced her trembling knees to carry her down the stairs and into her room. There was no doubt in her mind who had caused the destruction. It was the ghost.
She took the pack of gum from her pocket and threw the pieces onto the dresser. “Here. You can have all you want. Just don’t cause any more trouble.”
She hurried upstairs, wondering if gum would keep the ghost out of the kitchen. She joined Nancy and the other girls. Everybody was quiet for the ride to Nancy’s house.
The next morning, Ellen went home early. She saw the electrician’s truck parked at the curb. He was in the kitchen talking to Dad. “As far as I can tell, it was a faulty wire right here.” He pointed into the oven. “This is an old oven. It should have been replaced a long time ago.”
Dad nodded. “At least we know what caused the fire.”
Ellen wasn’t so sure. She went down to her room and counted the gum. Another piece was missing.
She opened an extra pack that Mom had bought at the store. She took a piece for herself and set the rest on the dresser. She shivered as she glanced around the room. “You can have all you want as long as you behave,” she said.
Later in the morning, a cold front blew in, scattering leaves about the yard like colorful scraps of paper. The sky grew dark with low gray clouds. “Looks like it might snow,” Dad said.
Michael peered into the sky. “That would be neat. We haven’t had any snow all year. I’m gonna take a box of snowballs to Jeff’s house and let him have it when he comes outside.”
Dad grinned. “Don’t get too carried away. It may not snow.”
Mom came through for a cup of coffee. She glanced at the sky. I’d rather snow than rain. Rain can freeze and get icy.”
Ellen remembered that her history report was due on Monday. If the streets got icy, she might not be able to finish her research.
“Can I have a ride to the library?” She asked Mom.
Mom frowned. “I have an article to finish. Maybe we could go on Monday.”
Ellen bit her lip. Then, she said, “The report is due on Monday.”
Mom sighed. “Why do you wait until the last minute? I bet Mary did her report days ago instead of running her mother to the library two days before it was due.”
Ellen felt heat rise to her face. Mary never did anything wrong. Her reports were always on time and she never caused her mother any trouble. “Well, maybe Mary doesn’t have a ghost to take her attention,” Ellen said.
Mom studied her a moment. “I’m sorry, honey. It’s just that I’m so busy. What class is this for?”
Mom sighed. “Of course.”
Dad pulled on his coat. “I’ve got an idea. We planned to look for a new oven this afternoon anyway. We can drop Ellen at the library while we look and you can finish your article this afternoon.”
“All right. It’s probably better to get the shopping done first anyway, in case the weather gets worse.”
Dad turned to Michael. “You staying here?”
Michael shook his head. “I think I’ll come along.”
“You want to go shopping?” Mom seemed surprised.
Ellen wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t that Michael wanted to go shopping. It was just that he wanted to stay hoome alone even less.
Ellen found the information she needed about the Boston Tea Party and finished her report. She waited by the glass doors for Mom and Dad to pick her up. A fine rain had begun. It grew harder while she waited and began to pelt the sidewalk with pea-size balls of sleet.
When she saw her car pull up, she ducked through the sleet and scrambled into the back seat. Michael grinned at her. I always knew you had cooties. You have little white balls in your hair,” he said.
She brushed the frost from her hair and ignored him. “Did you find an oven?”
Mom turned from the front seat. "Yep. And it's self- cleaning." Mom hated to work in the kitchen.
Ellen laughed. “Good. You won’t tell me to clean it.”
When they got home, Ellen rummaged in the refrigerator. She pulled out a pack of lunchmeat. “I wish we had something hot to eat. It’s so cold today.”
Mom smiled sympathetically. “When they deliver my oven on Monday, we can have nice hot meals instead of take-out food.”
“That only means you’ll make frozen pizza instead of soup heated in the microwave,” Ellen said.
Mom swatted her playfully. “That remind me, I better grab a quick sandwich and get back to my article.”
Ellen wrapped herself in a blanket and spent the afternoon reading. In the evening, a light snow began to fall.
“Wouldn’t you know it would wait until night. It’s too late to throw snowballs at Jeff,” Michael complained.
Ellen remembered his comment about cooties. She waited until he had taken his bath and gone downstairs. Then, she snuck out and gathered a handfull of snow.
“Michael!” she called downstairs. “Come see what I found.”
She waited until he was just below her and tossed the snow onto his head. “Now you have cooties, too.” His surprised look made her burst into laughter.
After a wild chase through the house, Dad sent them down to bed. Ellen snuggled into her covers. The sheets were cold and so was the room.
She got up and pulled her desk chair under the heating vent. She climbed up to reach the lever that pulled the vent fully open. She wished the furnace would hurry and come on.
To her surprise, she heard Mom talking. Then, she remembered Michael had shown her how this vent carried voices from the living room. “You have to admit there’s something strange going on in this house,” Mom said.
“What’s so strange? We know what caused the fire,” Dad said.
“Do we really?” Mom asked.
The question made Ellen shiver.
“Yes, we do. It was a faulty wire. The other things, like the basketball and television have an explanation, too. We’ll find the answer.” Dad’s voice was reassuring.
“What about Ellen’s gum and her glasses?”
“I don’t know. I’ll admit I think it’s all strange,” Dad said.
Ellen climbed down from the chair. Grown-ups weren’t supposed to believe in ghosts. Learning that Mom was worried made Ellen feel more scared.
She darted back to bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. She could see a small pile of snow growing at the bottom of her window. She wondered if ghosts were bothered by the cold.
She awoke the next morning and looked out the window. She drew in her breath. It was beautiful. Nests of snow rested on the branches of the pine trees and the grass was covered with a blanket of white.
From the other side of the wall, she heard Michael rustling into his clothes. He passed her doorway and called, “Hurry. Before it melts we can build a snowman.”
In the hour before church, they had time to build a small snow man. Mom took a picture of the snow man and a picture of Jasper who marked the fresh snow with his footprints as he barked furiously at the frozen man who wore Dad’s old hat and had a carrot for a nose.
By the time they left for church, the sun was melting the snow, causing it to drip from roofs and trees. The poor snow man’s nose began to droop and his hat tilted at a strange angle. “At least we got some snow. Mary said she never saw snow where she came from in Texas. I can’t wait to hear what she thought of this,” Ellen said. Thinking of Mary made her remember that Mary didn’t know about the fire. She’d tell her about that, too.
She didn’t have a chance to talk to her until after the service. They were standing together outside while her father shook hands with the congregation. Her reaction to the fire was the same as Dad’s had been. “You know what caused it,” Mary pointed out.”
Ellen shook her head. “I’m not buying it. There are too many other strange things happening.”
Mary looked thoughtful. “There’s only one way I can think of to get to the bottom of this. We’ll have to keep a watch all night in the basement.”
Ellen groaned. “It’s so hard to stay awake.”
“I’ll help you. We’ll plan lots of things to do.”
“Next Friday?” Mary asked.
“Yeah. That would be okay. I’m getting goose bumps thinking about it. Most of me wants to know who or what is causing the trouble. Part of me is scared to find out.”
Mary nodded. “I know what you mean. I don’t believe in the ghost, but I feel a little nervous, too.”
When Friday night came, Mary and Ellen settled onto the sofa bed in the basement. Mary had brought a game and two videos. “This should keep us awake. It’s too bad Nancy couldn’t come tonight,” she said.
“Yeah. I think she was mad her mom made her go along to see her sister’s basketball play off.”
“I wish I had a little sister. It would be fun to play basketball with her,” Mary said.
“Nancy doesn’t like sports much,” Ellen said.
“It would still be fun to have a little sister, or even a little brother.
Michael walked through the basement on the way to his room. “Did you find the toad I put in your bed?” he asked.
Ellen and Mary looked under the cover. There was no toad.
Michael laughed. “Ha! I made you look.”
Ellen rolled her eyes. “What were you saying about a little brother?”
Mary laughed. “I take it all back.”
As they set up the game, Mary said, “It’s nice being over here. You’re mother doesn’t worry about everything being so perfect. When you come to my house, my mother fusses around making perfect little sandwiches and has to be sure the juice matches the napkins.”
Ellen grinned. “It’s not that bad.”
“You don’t know. She wants to have a birthday party for me in a couple of weeks and I dread it.”
“She’ll bug me about the guest list. Have I left anyone out? Then she’ll worry about how many games to play and what to serve. It will be so perfect that I’ll be a nervous wreck.
To make things worse, she’ll tell everyone what a wonderful daughter I am and how much I helped with the party.”
“Sounds embarrassing.” Ellen looked thoughtful. “Sometimes I wish my mom would spend more time cooking and doing neat things for us, but I wouldn’t want her to do that much. I guess I don’t want her to change after all.”
Mary nodded. “Trust me. You’re better off like you are, even if you have to live on frozen pizza.”
They finished the game and turned on a movie. After awhile, the house got quiet. Ellen knew her family had gone to bed.
She began to get sleepy. She went up for a drink. When she got back, Mary said, “I hear a noise in Michael’s room.”
Ellen listened. “It’s just the gerbil. She makes noise all night.”
“Oh.” Mary still looked tense. Ellen wondered if she’d changed her mind about catching the ghost.
They settled back to watch television. The bright screen cast an eerie glow in the dark room. Shadows danced on the walls. Ellen shivered as she pulled a blanket around her.
By the middle of the second movie, she was getting sleepy again. Maybe nothing would happen tonight. She closed her eyes. She would rest for just a little while.
Suddenly Mary shook her. “I hear something and it’s not the gerbil.”
The girls huddled on the couch, hardly daring to breathe. From the other end of the basement came a thud followed by a low moan. It was in Michael’s room.
Ellen’s heart hammered against her ribs. She remembered the night she’d seen it drift past her room. By the time she woke everyone, there was no sign of it.
Now she realized it lived in Michael’s room and came out at night to get gum and cause mischief. The fact that Mary would see it tonight when it floated out and she would have a witness gave her little comfort.
A human shape appeared in Michael’s doorway. It raised its arms and moaned again. Ellen slunk down until only her eyes peered over the arm of the couch. She heard Mary draw a sharp breath as the spirit began to walk. When it reached the light cast by the television, Ellen saw its face.
The eyes were zombie-like, open, yet blank. It had blond hair and wore striped pajamas. It was Michael.
Ellen stood up. Her legs were trembling. “What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.
He didn’t look at her. He didn’t even notice she had spoken. Staring straight ahead, he walked up the stairs.
Ellen stared after him. “I thought he was trying to scare us, but he looks really weird. Do you think he’s under some kind of zombie spell?”
Mary started up the stairs. “I think he’s sleepwalking. Let’s follow him.”
They reached the top of the stairs and peered into the kitchen. Michael was in front of the open refrigerator, staring inside. After a moment, he left the refrigerator open and went to the living room.
They followed and watched as he turned on the television. He swayed back and forth as he stared at the screen.
“This is too weird,” Ellen said. “Michael,” she called softly.
He didn’t turn. “I don’t think you’re supposed to wake him,” Mary said. “He won’t know where he is or what he’s doing.”
Ellen heard footsteps in the hall. Her parents came into the room. Mom frowned. “What are you three doing awake in the middle of the night? You woke me up.”
They pointed to Michael. “He’s sleepwalking. He left the refrigerator open.”
Dad touched Michael on the shoulder. “Hey, buddy. Are you asleep?”
Michael kept staring at the television. Ellen shivered. “It’s weird. He doesn’t even know we’re talking to him.”
Dad steered Michael toward the kitchen. “Let’s get you back to bed.” He carried him downstairs and tucked him in bed.
Mom started some hot cocoa. “Since we’re all awake, we might as well have a cup.”
Dad came back upstairs. “I guess we’ve caught our ghost. He didn’t even wake up when I put him in bed.”
Mom nodded. “Didn’t you say you were a sleepwalker when you were a child?”
Dad grinned. “Sure was. One time my Dad caught me in the hall putting on my coat. I never did figure out where I was planning to go.”
“It’s a good thing they stopped you,” Ellen said.
“It sure is,” Dad agreed.”
Mom swished the cocoa inside her mug. “That’s what worries me about Michael. We have to find a way to keep him safe.”
“I gave it some thought when I put him in bed,” Dad said. “I’ll get a carpet square to set beside his bed and rig up a buzzer that goes off when he steps on the carpet.”
“What if it doesn’t wake him up? You saw how sound asleep he was tonight,” Mom said.
“I’ll rig it to buzz in our room, too,” Dad said.
Mom patted his arm. “It’s nice to have an engineer in the family.”
They finished the cocoa and drifted back to bed. Mary yawned. “I guess we can go to sleep now that the ghost has been caught.”
“You forgot one thing. Michael wasn’t home when my glasses and one piece of gum were stolen.”
“Oh yeah.” Mary closed her eyes. “Let’s think about that in the morning.”
Ellen closed her eyes, too. She was glad the mystery upstairs had been solved. Now they had to discover why a ghost liked gum and needed glasses.
On Monday, they told Nancy about what had happened. “I feel better about being at your house, but not in your room. That’s the only place that you can’t explain why things are moved or missing.”
Ellen nodded. “I have an idea and you both have to help me.”
“Sure,” Mary said.
Nancy cocked her head. Her eyebrows were drawn with suspicion. “What’s your idea?”
“Mary’s mom wants her to have a birthday party, but Mary thinks there will be too much pressure to get everything just right. What if I told her mom I wanted to have a party for her at my house?”
“That solves the problem with her party, but I don’t see how it solves the mystery,” Nancy said.
Ellen laughed. “This will be a party with a purpose. You’ll both help me stay awake to find out who really is the ghost. When I fall asleep, I don’t know when it comes and goes. If I’m going to face it awake, I want company.”
“Sure. I’ll do it,” Mary agreed. “I’ll tell Mom I’d rather have a party with you two than the big party she planned with lots of guests and lots of bother.”
Nancy’s eyes widened. “I guess it would be exciting. I’ve never been to a ghost-finding party.”
“Then it’s all set.” Ellen turned to Mary. “I’ll tell your mom we’ve planned a party at my house.”
“Thanks.” Mary squeezed Ellen’s shoulder in relief.
She was still in a good mood when they met that afternoon to walk to the bus. Mary had art as her last class. She held a small ceramic tree she had sculpted from clay. Mrs. Davis had fired it in an oven. Then, Mary painted it with gold paint.
“That’s beautiful,” Ellen said.
Nancy joined them in the hall. “Did you do that yourself?”
Mary’s face shone with pride. “Yep. I’m going to give it to Mom for her birthday.”
Nancy reached to touch a tiny branch. Just then, Eric walked by and deliberately bumped Mary. The tree sailed from her hands, bursting into a dozen pieces as it landed on the tile floor.
For a moment, they stared in stunned silence. Then Mary turned on Eric. Fury shone in her eyes. “You idiot! Look what you’ve done.”
Still glaring at Eric, she called him a bad word. Her hand flew to her mouth as though she could re-capture what had already come out.
With tears falling from her cheeks she dashed to the girls’ bathroom. Nancy followed while Ellen bent to pick up the broken pieces of the tree.
Eric’s face was pale. “I never meant to make her break it.” He stooped to gather up some branches. “Please, let me try to fix it. I’m pretty good at puttin’ stuff back together.”
Ellen stared into his eyes. Suddenly, she knew what had made him such a bother to Mary. He liked her. Ellen could see that Mary’s words had hurt his feelings.
Ellen felt a twinge of pity for him. “Don’t worry. She’ll forgive you.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. She sure thinks I’m a dolt.”
“Try doing things that are nice to get her attention.” She handed him the broken tree. “Her birthday is next week. Try to fix the tree and give it back to her as a present.”
His face brightened. “I will. And I’ll add a card, too.”
She watched him walk off with the tree and hoped he could fix it. Mary had been so proud of it. Perhaps it would never be the same.
She found Nancy standing beside Mary. Mary was washing her face with cool water. Ellen could not imagine how it would do any good since Mary was still sobbing.
Ellen patted Mary on the shoulder. “It’ll be okay. Eric says he can fix the tree.”
Mary turned to her. Her eyes were red and puffy. “It’s not just the tree. You all must think I’m an awful person for what I said. I don’t know why I did it. I’ve never talked that way before.”
Nancy snorted. “It’s probably the language you hear on the bus every day. That’s why my mom won’t let me ride.”
“Yeah,” Ellen agreed. “It’s hard not to do it when you hear it every day.”
“But neither of you ever talk that way, and I never have before and….” she began to cry again. “I must be a terrible person.”
“You’re not a terrible person. You’re just human,” Ellen said softly. “You think your mother expects you to be perfect, but we don’t. We’re not perfect. Nobody is. When I slip up with a bad word I try not to do it again and so can you. We like you if you make mistakes sometimes.”
“Yeah. And if we were perfect, we wouldn’t need the sacrifice Jesus made for us,” Nancy reminded.
Mary bit her lip and stopped crying. She seemed to be thinking. After a minute, she wiped her tears. “I’m lucky to have friends like you two.”
“We’re lucky to have you, too,” Ellen said.
“My mom’s waiting to pick me up. I’ll see if she can give you two a ride home since you’ve probably missed the bus,” Nancy said.
They linked arms as they left the bathroom. Nancy’s mom was waiting in front of the school. “Can they have a ride?” Nancy asked.
Her mom smiled. “Missed the bus, huh?”
They nodded and piled into the back seat of the car. For Mary’s sake, Ellen was relieved Nancy’s mom had assumed they’d simply run late.
By the time she got home, Ellen felt drained. She poured a glass of milk and collapsed at the table. Michael had left a package of cookies out and she nibbled a few.
Mom passed by waving a sheet of paper in her hand. “This is going to be a tight deadline to get this finished. Don’t snack too much. I’m going to ask Dad to stop for hamburgers on his way home tonight.”
Mom paused and felt her forehead. “You look a little pale. Do you feel okay?”
“I’m just tired.”
“Long day at school?”
“Yes, after a long weekend.”
Mom patted her shoulder. “I know what you mean.”
Ellen remembered she wanted to ask Mom about the party. “Would you mind if I have Mary and Nancy over next Friday for Mary’s birthday?”
Mom frowned. “I thought her mother was going to plan a party.”
“She was. Mary would rather come here.”
“I wonder why. Mary’s mother is so clever and creative, I’d think she’d arrange a wonderful party.”
“That’s just the problem. She fusses over every detail so much, she makes Mary nervous.”
“I see. Well, I hope you girls don’t hurt her feelings with this change of plans.” Mom waved the article she was writing. “I better get back to work.” Ellen didn’t think Mom had tried very hard to understand the problem with Mary’s mother.
Ellen drifted down to the basement. Michael was watching his favorite afternoon show. It involved kids who tried to solve a made-up crime by understanding the geography clues. Michael planned to be on the show one day.
Ellen perched on the edge of the armchair. “We’re going to catch the ghost this weekend,” she said.
“Who says?” He turned away from the show. She had his attention.
“Nancy and Mary are coming over. We’re going to stay up until whatever it is shows its face.”
“What are you going to do then?”
Ellen thought a minute. She hadn’t really thought about what they would do. “We’ll get out quick. Once we find out what it is, we’ll know how to get rid of it…I hope.”
“Maybe it doesn’t come if you’re awake.”
She sighed. It was possible he was right. “Then we’ll pretend to be asleep.”
“Say! I could sleep with my camera. If you see anything, I could run in and take a picture. Then we’ll have proof. Everybody will have to believe you.”
“Mom could write a story about it and use your picture for the paper,” Ellen said.
“Yeah. We’ll be famous. We can give tours of your room and make lots of money.”
Ellen glanced into her doorway. A pair of skates sat in the middle of the floor. She grinned. “I’ll have to clean my room or someone will fall down and sue me.”
As she set the skates into the closet she called into the darkness, “Anybody home?” She shivered, knowing she’d jump out of her skin if anyone answered.
Awhile later, Mom called them to dinner. Ellen brought up a load of clothes that had sat under her dresser for the past week.
Mom rolled her eyes. “I was at Mary’s house yesterday. She keeps her room so clean her mother never has to scold her about it.”
That was the last straw. Ellen had heard all she could stand from Mom about Mary’s perfection and she was ready with a plan.
When dinner was over, Ellen cleared away the hamburger wrappers and said, “I get tired of fast food. I wish you could cook like Mary’s mom.”
Mom turned with a startled look. “I had to get the article finished. I didn’t have time tonight.”
Ellen wiped at the counter. “I know. But you don’t cook real dinners the way she does. You should have seen what we had for lunch the day I came over.”
Mom frowned. “I don’t have time for that sort of thing.”
Ellen rinsed the dishrag. She could see Mom from the corner of her eye. She sighed. “But Mary’s mom is so perfect. She can cook and decorate and you were right about what a great party she can plan.”
Mom’s mouth drew into a tight line. “I’m sorry I’m such a disappointment.”
Ellen wiped her hands and turned to Mom. “You’re not. I like you the way you are. But I don’t like being compared to Mary all the time. I don’t like it any more than you like being compared to her mother.”
Mom stared at her a moment. Gradually her frown faded. “I see what you mean. I hadn’t realized what I was doing. You can be sure it will stop. I like you the way you are, too. Truce?”
Mom held out her arms and Ellen gave her a hug.
“I’m worried about Mary,” Ellen said.
“She feels like everybody expects her to be perfect all the time, especially her mother. She’s always afraid of disappointing her.”
Mom frowned. “That’s not healthy.”
“I think I can help. I’ll find a way to talk to her mother. No one should have to live with that kind of pressure.”
Ellen felt better. Maybe Mary could relax if she felt like her mother didn’t expect perfection. Right now, Mary felt like the world would end if she made a mistake. Still, she was bound to make a bad grade, forget to pick up her room, or let her mother down sometime.
Ellen was writing in her diary when the tape gave way and her poster fell from the door. She glanced at the ugly bony-looking face. She was in no mood for ghostly tricks. She reached for the tape and fastened the poster back to the door.
Goose bumps rose on her arms as she turned off the lights and pulled the cover high over her shoulders. She had just drifted to sleep when she heard Michael’s buzzer sound. Michael had stepped onto the carpet beside his floor.
Suddenly, the buzzer shut off. Michael had either gone back to bed or walked off the square of carpet.
Dad’s heavy footsteps came down the stairs. He walked past her door on his way to Michael’s room.
“Where’s Michael?” Ellen called.
After a minute Dad poked his head in her doorway. “He’s gone back to bed. My alarm seems to work. Sorry it woke you.”
Ellen checked the gum on her dresser. She’d left four pieces. They were all there.
She went back to sleep. The buzzer woke her again, late in the night. Dad came back to check. Michael had gone back to bed.
However, a new count of the gum told Ellen the ghost had paid a visit while she was sleeping.
“Friday,” she whispered, “I’ll know who you are
Mary was in a good mood when she pulled Nancy and Ellen aside at lunch on Friday. Ellen had told her “Happy Birthday” on the bus and Nancy had admired Mary’s new sweater when she got to school. It was a soft turquoise with pearl buttons. Her parents had let her open it that morning.
“The talk I had with Mom last night was even better than the sweater,” Mary said. “She hadn’t realized I felt so stressed about doing everything right. She said she felt the same way, too. Maybe her mom had raised her that way. Anyway, she wants things to change for both of us. She’s going to quit being a perfectionist. And if I forget to put my laundry in the wash one night, it won’t be a terrible crime.”
Ellen laughed. “My mom would be glad if I forgot only one night.”
“That’s true,” Nancy added, with a grin.
“Thanks,” said Ellen.
Mary caught her lip between her teeth as she looked across the courtyard. “Oh no,” she whispered. “Eric’s coming.” I have to get away.” Without a look back, she ducked into the outside door to the girl’s gym.
Eric halted in front of Ellen. He looked puzzled. “Where’s Mary?”
Ellen nodded toward the gym. “She has gym after lunch.”
“Oh.” He looked disappointed. “I fixed the little tree. You can hardly tell it was ever broken. It’s in my locker and I wanted to give it back.”
“We’ll tell her you’ve got it,” Nancy said.
Eric nodded. Ellen watched him walk away. “I have a feeling Mary’s going to ask us to get it.”
“Yeah. She’s really avoiding Eric,” Nancy said.
Ellen saw Mary just before school was out. She stopped beside her locker and said, “Eric has the tree fixed. He wants to give it to you.”
Mary nibbled at her lip. “I don’t want to talk to him. I’m too embarrassed about what I said.”
Ellen was opening her mouth to remind Mary that it was alright to make a mistake when Eric detached himself from the crowd. Before Mary could bolt away, he held up the tree for her to see.
Her cheeks flushed. She held onto Ellen’s sleeve to prevent her from leaving. Ellen couldn’t help smiling at Eric’s pleased face. He was completely unaware of Mary’s obvious embarrassment.
“I fixed this,” he said, holding up the tree.
“Thanks.” She accepted it carefully. “I’m sorry for calling you a name.”
He grinned. “I deserved it. Does the tree look okay?”
Mary ran her fingers gently across the break. “It looks great. If I didn’t know where to look, I’d never know it had been broken.”
“I won’t do anything like that again. Can we be friends?”
Mary nodded. “Sure.”
“See you on the bus.”
Eric strode down the hall.
“He’s not so bad, after all,” Ellen said.
Mary was looking after him. She had a dreamy look on her face. “No. He’s not so bad, after all.”
Mary turned several times to see if Eric was watching her from the back of the bus. When he saw her, she blushed and turned around.
When they got off the bus, Ellen knew Mary’s mind was not on the party they planned that night.
“You’ll be here at six, right?” Ellen asked.
“What? Oh…yeah. I’ll be there.”
“Great. We’re ordering pizza. It will be a change from the frozen kind.”
Mary frowned. “I don’t think my Mom’s ever bought frozen pizza, but that might change now that we’re more relaxed. I’ll tell her she should take a night off from cooking and serve it sometime.”
Ellen laughed. “You might be sorry if you get her started.”
Nancy and Mary both arrived at six o’clock. The pizza arrived ten minutes later.
“That smells so good,” Nancy said.
“It does,” agreed Mary.
After supper, the doorbell rang. Mom answered it and called them to the door. Mary’s parents were there and her mother held a beautifully decorated cake. It had roses and tiny birds.
“I didn’t think you’d mind if I invited your parents to the desert part of your party,” Mom told Mary.
“On no, of course not.” Mary looked questioningly at the cake. “That must have taken you all day,” she told her mother.
“It did. I didn’t forget what we talked about. I told you I wouldn’t spend so much time on things that aren’t important. But this was important and I enjoyed it. Anyway, it made a good excuse to have your dad take me out to dinner.”
Mary grinned. She couldn’t remember the last time her parents had gone out to dinner. Maybe her mom really would relax.
After they finished the cake, Mary opened her presents from Ellen and Nancy. Ellen had bought her a bracelet and Nancy had bought the charm, a golden basketball.
“We can get you a new charm every year,” Nancy said.
Mary’s dark eyes sparkled. “Thank you. This is the best birthday ever.”
They left her parents to visit and went downstairs to listen to music. As soon as she reached her room, Ellen felt her mood dampen. Tonight was the night they would discover the ghost. She still had mixed feelings about whether she really wanted to see whatever had haunted her bedroom for the past two months.
When it got late, Mary’s parents came down to say goodnight. “Don’t wake Ellen’s parents too early,” Mary’s dad said.
Ellen thought about their plan to stay up and catch the ghost. Early or late, she was waking her parents as soon as the ghost appeared, especially if it seemed angry at being
tricked into showing itself.
As they settled their sleeping bags, Michael called out that he had his camera ready. Mary turned out the light. It was very dark in Ellen’s bedroom.
Ellen gulped. “Do you think we could leave the light on?”
“Nope. We have to have everything just the way it is when the gum gets stolen each night. Did you put a piece on the dresser?” Mary asked.
“Yes.” Ellen’s hand gripped her flashlight. “I think the ghost comes in the middle of the night.”
“We’ll have to find a way to stay awake,” Nancy said. She sounded sleepy already.
“We can’t keep talking or it will know we’re not asleep,” Ellen said.
“Try telling yourselves stories. And pinch yourself if you get sleepy,” Mary suggested.
They laid quietly for a few minutes. Suddenly, Nancy said, “Ouch.”
“I guess Nancy got sleepy,” Ellen whispered.
They dissolved in giggles until Mary said, “Don’t pinch yourself quite so hard.”
They settled back down. Ellen listened to the usual sounds of the night. The hot water heater bumped and the house creaked and groaned.
The night drug on. Ellen shivered. When would it come?
More time passed. Ellen fought hard to keep her eyes open. Surely it would come soon. She tried to see the numbers on the clock.
Without her contacts, everything was blurry. She squinted. Did it say two o’clock?
She was about to ask Mary, when a scraping sound stopped her. She listened hard. Was it the closet?
No. It sounded like fingernails scratching across the window screen. She wondered if anyone else heard it yet. Worse yet, what if Mary and Nancy had gone to sleep? She couldn’t face this alone.
“Mary,” she whispered.
“Shh. Keep still.”
At least Mary was still awake. Ellen gripped the flashlight tighter. She forced herself to wait and listen. If she acted too fast, the light might scare it away.
She squinted through her eyelashes. The moon cast a pallid light into the dark room. Something was moving along the window ledge. It leaped onto the headboard of the bed. Then Ellen heard a thump as the shadow sprang from the headboard onto the dresser.
“Now!” Mary cried.
Ellen turned on the flashlight. Nancy sat up with a startled cry, tripping Mary on her way to turn on the light. The girls landed in a tangled heap with Mary sitting on Nancy.
Everybody stared at the beam of light that showed the startled figure on the dresser. He sat like a stuffed toy, a little rodent with a shiny stick of wrapped gum in his hands.
He was frozen with surprise as he stared into the bright light. The girls could only stare in return. “It’s a mouse,” Ellen said.
“Or a rat,” said Nancy, who was struggling to come fully awake.
Michael clattered into the doorway with his camera. “What is it? Did you catch it?”
The little creature bounded across the headboard and up to the window ledge. Ellen tried to follow him with the light. He moved too swiftly for the beam to follow.
Michael flipped on the light and they hurried to the window. “He must have come in this tear in the screen,” he said.
“Yeah.” Ellen turned to Mary. The night you came over, we closed the window and no gum disappeared, remember?”
Mary nodded. “I remember. This is why things were disappearing from your room and not from the rest of the house.”
“But why would a rat want glasses and gum?” Nancy asked.
“He must be a pack rat. We read about them in science,” Michael said. “They take things they like, especially things that are shiny. They carry them back to their nest and keep them. Sometimes they trade them for things they like better.”
Ellen laughed. “He has enough gum by now to blow a really big bubble.”
There were footsteps on the stairs as Dad came down. “I thought I heard voices. What’s everybody doing up?”
At first everyone tried to explain at once. They burst into laughter at the confusion on Dad’s face.
Finally, Ellen tried to explain. “We caught the “ghost” tonight. It turned out to be a little pack rat who was getting in through the hole in my screen.”
Dad examined the screen. “I never would have thought of that.”
“It turns out you had three ghosts, Michael, the bad wiring on the oven and the pack rat,” Nancy said.
“Let’s make hot cocoa and you can tell me what you saw. We’ll have to be quiet because Mom’s still asleep,” Dad said.
“Okay. The rat was kinda cute, for a rat. It had a big fluffy tail,” Ellen said.
“It reminded me of Minnie, except Minnie’s smaller,” Michael said.
They sipped the cocoa and talked about the rat. “I wonder why Jasper didn’t bark at it when he was in my room,” Ellen said.
“Didn’t you say Jasper likes Michael’s gerbil?” Mary asked.
“Yeah. I see what you mean. Jasper probably thought it was a gerbil,” Ellen said.
“It’s a relief to find out what was causing the mischief. Even so, I’ll replace the screen on your window tomorrow. That should keep out your thief,” Dad said.
“I’ll be glad. It’s creepy to have something sneaking into my room at night, even if it is a little pack rat.”
Ellen yawned as she looked at the wall clock. “Three o’clock. This is the latest I’ve ever stayed up,” she said.
“And time for all of you to go back to bed,” Dad said.
When they got downstairs, Ellen said, “Now that this is all solved, I won’t have to be scared to sleep down here anymore.”
“It’s too bad you had to go through all this,” Mary said.
Ellen settled into her sleeping bag. “Not really. If it weren’t for the ghost, we wouldn’t have gotten to know each other so well.”
“That’s true,” Mary agreed. She was sounding sleepy. Ellen could tell from Nancy’s slow breathing that she was already asleep.
“Do you remember what your father prayed the first time you came over?” Ellen asked.
“What was that?” Mary mumbled.
“He prayed that our house would be filled with warm and loving memories. And that’s exactly what has happened. We’ve become good friends and I’ll never forget the fun we had trying to solve the mystery.”
“Neither will I.”
Ellen closed her eyes. She felt warm and cozy. She wondered if the little pack rat felt as snug in his burrow. She hoped, someday, she would find it and see the piles of things he’d taken. It was too bad about the gum. The glasses he could keep.
If you enjoyed this story, you might also like,
BETWEEN BEST FRIENDS, also by Karen Cogan.
Other books by this author:
Waiting for Mama
Too Scared to Move
The Borrowed Sister
The Great Camp-Off
Do Not Disturb
A native of Houston, TX, Karen spent her early years enjoying life along the Gulf Coast. After high school, she attended Texas
A&M as well as the University of Houston where she obtained a B.S. in early childhood education. She has written numerous articles and stories, books for children and novels for adults. She particularly enjoys writing middle grade fiction, contemporary fiction and historical romance.
She now lives in the Southwest with her family and assorted pets.
Ellen's palms grew damp as she stared into the inky darkness. The light above her head lit only the top of the stairs. The basement lay below. She shivered, hating the thought of going down all alone. She listened for sounds of moaning or clanking and heard nothing. Still, it was dark and spooky down there and she had the feeling someone was watching and waiting.