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A collection of spooky tales includes the stories of an autistic boy who paints frighteningly real pictures, a vain teenager who subscribes to an unorthodox medical procedure, and a pair of siblings whose practical joke backfires
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As I step outside, a strange feeling tugs at my spine. Perhaps that's what it feels like when you first step into a nightmare.
Don't be silly, Jeremy, I tell myself, there's nothing to be afraid of.
Today the wind has brought an unpleasant smell sweeping across the neighborhood. It's tinged with a slight scent of fertilizer.
The smell's coming from Mr. Jackson's house. My mom told me all about Mr. Jackson--how he used to live here before I was born. How he spent most of his life in that house; how his beautiful garden had been the envy of the neighborhood.
He had a family, but no one knows what happened to them. They left, he left soon after, and the garden just died.
By the time I was born, the house was an ugly blotch on our neighborhood. People would live there for only a few months before leaving, and then it became completely abandoned. Now it was covered with graffiti and filled with broken, boarded-up windows. It bothered me to have a place like that next door, but like anything, I got used to it.
Then last week, Mr. Jackson just came back, like he'd never left. Since then, I've been watching the house...and watching him. The house hasn't changed--he hasn't had anyone come to fix the windows or paint over the graffiti. All he does is work in his garden. He sure loves that garden.
Now, as I step outside, I can hear him back there. I can hear the skitch...brummp, skitch...brummp of his little trowel digging up the dirt and throwing it over his shoulder. I know he's planting more flowers. Until Mr. Jackson came back, there weren't any flowers in that garden. Nothing grew there but ugly weeds that got filled with torn rags, Kleenex, and candy wrappers. Whatever the wind brought to our neighborhood got snagged in the thick weeds of that abandoned backyard and stayed there.
Until last week, that is. That's when Mr. Jackson showed up and began hacking those weeds, putting them into trash bags, and hauling them out to the curb. The weeds are all gone now, and bit by bit that wasteland of a yard is filling with flowers.
"Jeremy, don't go bothering the man," my mom had told me. But what she really means is "Stay away from him, Jeremy, because he's not quite right. Leave him to his business, and maybe when his business is done he'll leave forever and they'll tear that ugly house down."
But Mom's asleep on the couch now, so she doesn't have to know, and I can't resist the curiosity itching at my brain. It's a few minutes after dark. A night chill has set in, and the sun is long gone, leaving a ribbon of blue on the horizon that's fading fast. I stand at the edge of our property, peering at the upstairs windows of the old house, nervously running my fingers through my hair. Boards have covered most of those windows for years now, and thick spiderwebs fill the space between the boards.
Taking a deep breath, I cross over, through the gaping hole in the old wooden fence, into the world of Mr. Jackson. Here that dark and earthy fertilizer smell is stronger. There are no lights on in the house. I don't think Mr. Jackson has had the electricity turned back on.
He's back there all right, doing his yardwork--I can see his shadow now as I make my way down the side of the house toward the backyard. I can see that shadow on hands and knees in the dirt.
Holding on to a rusty old drainpipe snaking down the edge of the house, I round the corner to see him in the light of the half moon. He's setting a fresh row of flowers in the growing garden. I can't tell what they are, because all I can see is black and white.
"Are those zinnias you're planting?" I ask, remembering that my mom liked to grow zinnias.
He doesn't look up at me. I figure he's too deaf to hear me--and good thing too. I've got no business here. I can just go back home, turn on the TV, and forget Mr. Jackson; no one would be the wiser. But then he speaks in a soft whisper of a voice that sounds filled with gravel and wrapped in cotton.
"Marigolds," he says. "Man-in-the-moon marigolds, they are."
Skitch...brummp. He plants one more, then finally turns to look at me. I don't see his eyes, just dark shadows where they should be.
"You the Harrison boy?" he asks.
I nod, then say "Yes," figuring he can't see my nod in the dark.
"I see you lookin' out your window at me," he says. "Am I putting on a good show for you here?"
"It's not like that," I try to explain. "I've just been wondering why you're...I mean, look at the house. What's so important about the yard when the house looks like hell?"
"How would you know what hell looks like?" he asks me. Skitch...brummp. Dirt flies over his shoulder, and in goes another marigold.
By now I'm feeling all tongue-twisted and bone cold, and fear is clawing at my gut. I grip that cold drainpipe as if it can give me some comfort, and it comes loose in my hands.
Yelping, I fall to the ground, right into the bed of flowers.
"I'm sorry," I stammer, scrambling to my feet, wishing I was anywhere else in the world. When I look down, I shudder at the sight of the imprint I made in the flowers. The way the moon's casting shadows tonight, I can see the shape of my whole body, as if I'm still lying down.
I figure the old man is going to have a fit and start scooping out my brains with his planting trowel, or bury his little hand rake in the side of my neck, but he doesn't. Instead he just looks down at the crushed flowers.
"Those're no good anymore," he says calmly. "I gotta put in all new ones now."
He looks at me, and now I can see his eyes. They are ancient, the lids almost closing over them in tired sags of skin.
"I don't need you here," he tells me in that gravel-cotton voice. "I can do this myself. I don't need you."
Well, I don't need a second invitation to leave. I step back, stumbling over the broken drainpipe, and tear out of the yard, through the hole in the wooden fence and back onto my own property where the moon doesn't seem to shine quite as coldly.
* * *
I can't sleep that night, because I hear him through my closed window. Only now do I realize that he doesn't sleep--he works all through the night in that garden. What is it about that garden? I wonder as I lay awake. Why is it so important to him?
When the sun comes up in the morning, I drag myself out of bed and peer out the window. In the light of day, the garden doesn't look quite so creepy. In fact, it looks kind of pretty and peaceful. Rows of flowers of all different colors surround a single open patch of dirt. I wonder what he's going to put there.
Downstairs, I force myself to drink Mom's coffee so that I can stay awake. "I think Mr. Jackson's going to put a fountain in the middle of his garden," I tell my mom as she tosses a couple of waffles on my plate. "What do you think?"
"His business is his business," Mom says. But what she really means is "I don't want you to go sticking your nose in that garden." Mom's always been a mind-your-own kind of person.
"Lock the door when you leave," she tells me, like she always does when she heads off for work. Like if she didn't I'd leave the door wide open.
As I eat, I can hear the rattle of a wheelbarrow next door. Mr. Jackson's busy with his endless yardwork. I'm about to leave for school, but before I do, I get an idea. You see, I'm not quite as mind-your-own as Mom is.
In a couple of minutes, I leave the house, but instead of turning right and heading toward school, I turn left and slip through the hole in the wooden fence.
Mr. Jackson is where I knew I'd find him, in the corner of the yard, turning up the earth for a new batch of flowers and tossing the bigger stones into the wheelbarrow. He wears a long-sleeved shirt, buttoned all the way to the top, even though the day is hot. His hands are covered with dirt and they're just as leathery and wrinkled as the skin on his face.
"I...I thought you might like some breakfast," I tell him. I hold the plate toward him. "Waffles. I didn't know if you liked syrup, so I put it in a little cup on the side, see?"
Still across the yard, he stands there looking at me like he's looking through a wall. Then he slowly makes his way toward me, careful not to trample his flowers with his heavy work boots. His feet drag as he moves, as if he's got no muscles in them--as if he's pulling his legs up from the seat of his pants like one of those marionettes. He reaches out and takes the plate and cup from me.
"Thank you," he says simply, then puts the waffles down on a cinder block and reaches into his pocket, handing me a wad of crumpled dollar bills.
I shake my head, not wanting to take the money, and, for that matter, not wanting to touch that dirty, puffy hand. "No," I tell him, "no, you don't have to pay me--the waffles are my treat--to make up for messing up your flowers last night." When I look down, I see that he's already replanted the area.
He shakes his head slowly. "I'm not paying you," he tells me. "I'm asking you to do something for me." He clears his throat. It crackles like eggshells breaking. "I was wrong," he says. "Last night I was wrong. I do need someone to help me. You understand?"
I shrug. "Sure. What do you want me to do?"
"Flowers from the nursery. Lots of flowers."
He thinks about that for a moment, then smiles, revealing just a sparse scattering of rotten teeth. I have to cast my eyes down because I can't look at that terrible mouth.
"Any kind you like," he tells me. "Pick your favorites...and buy a shovel," he says before I go, "a bigger shovel."
* * *
After school, I head right out to the nursery with the old wagon I used when I was a little kid. I don't know much about flowers, but I pick out a few trays of really nice ones for Mr. Jackson's garden. Then I pull it all home in the rusty old wagon and present it to Mr. Jackson.
"Help me plant them," he says.
I look at my watch. Mom won't be home for another hour. I've got no homework, so I figure, Sure, why not. No good deed goes unrewarde...
Paintings one can step into, a vengeful Christmas tree that pins Santa to the floor, a hot tub that is home to a hungry Loch Ness monster?these are some of the unlikely objects featured in Shusterman's candy-box-like collection of 10 mildly supernatural tales, a promising kickoff to the MindQuakes series. Shusterman's (Scorpion Shards) mastery of suspense and satirical wit make the ludicrous fathomable and entice readers into suspending their disbelief. He repeatedly interjects plausible and even poignant moments into otherwise bizarre scenarios. Accompanying his workaholic mason father on one of several eerie visits to his work sites, for example, the son of divorced parents muses that he only gets to see his dad on Sundays: "Instead of making time for me, he just squeezes me into what he's already doing, whether I fit or not." Notches above the many Twilight Zone knockoffs that have found their way into print, this all-too-brief anthology will snare even reluctant readers. Ages 10-up.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Book Description Demco Media 1996-05-01, 1996. Paperback. Condition: Very Good. Item is in very good condition. If supplemental codes/CDs for textbooks are required please contact us prior to purchasing as they may be missing. Seller Inventory # DS-0606116257-2
Book Description Demco Media, 1996. Turtleback. Condition: Used: Good. Seller Inventory # SONG0606116257