I had hoped to have a new short book published for Halloween. Unfortunately, while I probably could have managed it, it wouldn’t have been nearly as polished as I would have liked, so I decided to hold off until it was more presentable.
However, it seems a shame to let the day pass without something, so I’m going to offer the first chapter for your reading pleasure. Hopefully it’ll make you want to read the whole book when it comes out.
Spring and Fall in Roam House
Spring and Fall
“Ferb, I know what we’re going to do today!”
–Phineas Flynn, Phineas and Ferb
It was a bright and sunny day, and David Fall was as content as he knew how to be. The weather was warm and bright, but not too hot for summer in Alabama, and there were hardly any flies about. As far as David was concerned, sitting under a tree on a day like this with a cool drink at your side, good ghost story in your lap, and your best friend close at hand was as much as any twelve-year-old boy could ask of life.
David was a large, pale, rounded kind of boy. He had black hair, black eyes, and usually wore black whatever the weather. Some people said he looked as if he’d stepped out of an old movie that hadn’t been colorized yet. No one could believe that he spent as much time in the sun as he did; he never tanned, no matter how long he spent outside. He was just naturally, stubbornly pale.
The peaceful moment was shattered when an upside down face bearing an inverted smile swung into view from the branches overhead, trailing a long sheet of blonde hair that almost reached the ground.
“Finished!” said Jenny Spring.
David looked up at his best friend, not batting an eye at her eccentric means of making an entrance.
She nodded happily. “I’m a fast reader, and it’s a good book. Rodion wound up giving himself up in the end and went to jail, but it’s okay because he deserved it and he gets redeemed in the process, and his sisters marries his super-nice best friend, and he’s going to marry Sonya once he gets out of the hoosegow, and it all pretty much works out!”
“I know,” said David. “You told me how it ended the last time you read it.”
“Oh, right,” she said. “I forgot; it makes a difference reading it in Russian, you know. I guess I just felt like I was reading a whole new book.”
David rolled his eyes. Jenny Spring was, by far, the smartest person he had ever met. At twelve years old she was already fluent in Spanish, French, German, Latin, and (apparently) Russian. She had a hobby of learning a new language every summer. Jenny did things like that.
“You should get out of the tree,” he said. “All the blood’s going to rush to your head.”
“Oh, right!” she said. She swung herself up and dropped lightly to the ground, then settled herself in the grass to watch David read.
Jenny was a small, lightly built girl with very large blue eyes and a lot of long blonde hair. She was (David privately thought, and most people agreed) extremely pretty. Most girls go through a growth spurt about her age, but apparently her body was too busy keeping her enormous brain working to bother. She was wearing a green tee shirt and light brown skirt from under which her bare feet poked out. Jenny didn’t like shoes; she said they got in the way. David thought that was kind of the point, but didn’t argue about it.
David Fall and Jenny Spring had been best friends ever since they were toddlers (Jenny claimed to be able to remember first meeting him a few days after she came home from the hospital, but that was one of those things David wasn’t quite prepared to believe, even of her). They lived on the same street, right door to one another, and their bedroom windows faced each other, so that whatever time of night it was they could always talk by writing messages on chalkboards (they’d also set up a signaling system with a line and a couple small bells when they were about six).
Jenny’s father was a doctor and her mother was a vet. When they had decided to attend a medical conference in Birmingham, Alabama, they had invited Jenny (as the eldest) to come along to spend a week or so in the house of her Uncle Lance and Aunt Shirley, who had a farm outside the town of Roamsford about twenty miles from the city, while the rest of the family stayed home with Dr. Spring’s unmarried brother.
Jenny had taken it upon herself to invite David to come along, and he had leapt at the chance. Partly this was because they each had a basic assumption that whatever they did they would do together, so that spending a whole week apart would have seemed just weird to them (Jenny claimed to be able to count from memory the number of days they hadn’t seen each other since they were old enough to be let out of the house, and that it was, as she put it “more than my fingers, but less than my toes”).
But even more than that, David hated the idea of staying home all that time. His house was not a happy one. He lived with his Uncle Andrew, and while he wasn’t at all mean to the boy, he was agoraphobic, mildly autistic, and all around not much of a companion. Uncle Andrew spent most of his days in his study, writing books on ancient American cultures, of which he was a respected expert. Their house was dark, quiet, and very lonely. That was one of the reasons David spent as much time as he could with his bright, bubbly best friend.
Though he enjoyed her sunny personality, David’s own could not have been more different. He was quiet, reserved, and introverted. A lot of the time they spent together was like this; quietly reading, with Jenny occasionally interrupting to tell him about something interesting she’d just read, or (since she read so much faster than he did) sitting watching him read with her legs crossed, her elbows on her knees, and her chin resting on her knuckles letting her mind work, as she was doing right now.
“I’m bored,” she said after a moment.
“That doesn’t bode well,” David commented, not looking up from his book.
“I already read all the books I brought,” she went on, ignoring him. “I’ve learned Russian, and I finished my translation of The Song of My Cid yesterday. I’m tapped out of projects!”
“You don’t like it, you shouldn’t be so smart.”
Jenny considered this, then shook her head.
“No, I don’t think that’s going to work,” she said seriously. “All the ways I know of making yourself stupider are either immoral or hurt a lot. Besides, what happens when I’m not bored anymore and want to be smart again?”
David raised his brows.
“Oh, you were being sarcastic!” She laughed. “You know, one of these days I’m going to get it without your telling me.”
He smiled at her.
“But really,” she went on. “What should I do? I need a project; I can’t just laze around here for the next three days.”
David sighed. He’d seen Jenny like this before, and it usually preceded some hair-brained scheme or other. Though she was a genius, Jenny didn’t really get things like ‘practicality.’ Once she had decided to make a code involving different patterns of tree bark and had been disappointed when no one understood a word of it. Another time, when she had been especially bored, she had gotten it into her head to memorize Webster’s Complete English Dictionary (David convinced her to give up around the ‘E’s). And only a few weeks ago, as part of her efforts to learn Russian, she had roped him into helping her make anti-Communist propaganda leaflets, which she had then mailed to the CIA with suggestions of how to smuggle them into the Soviet Union. So far, they hadn’t heard back from the agency.
He put down his book and tried to think. Unless he could help her come up with something practical, they would be in for another round of dictionary memorization.
“Why don’t you write a book?” he suggested.
“Who’d want to read a book by a twelve year old?” she answered. “Besides, I’m no good at plotting.”
“So write a non-fiction book, like a study on Russian poetry or something.”
Jenny considered this for a moment, then shook her head.
“No, I don’t want to write a book, at least not right now.”
David tried to think what else smart people did.
“What about learning piano or something?”
“I already did that, remember?”
“When we were six. It was super easy too. Don’t you remember? I played The Nutcracker Suite at Christmas that year.”
“Oh, right,” said David, who retained almost no memories of that Christmas, but vaguely recalled Jenny at the piano, running back and forth because her arms weren’t long enough to reach the whole keyboard at once.
“Okay, so why not some other instrument?”
“I’m not really that in to music, to be honest,” she said.
He groaned, racking his brains trying to think of something that might appeal to her. She already knew how to play chess pretty well, could perform advanced mathematics in her head, and had read most of the library back in Mayfield. He really couldn’t think of anything else she could do.
Jenny threw herself on her back with a sigh, her head resting on her hands as she contemplated the clouds.
“You know what I would like?” she said. “I’d like to study something.”
“That’s practically all you ever do,” he answered.
“No, I mean, I want to make a real study; you know, actually delve into something myself and come up with something new.”
David seized upon this suggestion.
“That’s a great idea!” he said. “What about…astronomy?”
“One girl with a telescope isn’t going to have much to offer there,” she said.
“Not much there either. Besides, I’d have to dissect things in that.” She made a fact. “No thanks!”
She considered that one.
“Mm…I don’t know,” she said. “Seems like that would involve way too much travel if I were to do anything useful.”
David thought and tried to come up with the most obscure, difficult-sounding science he could think of.
“Should be discredited.”
“That’s a practice, and you need a license for it.”
“You’re being sarcastic again!”
“No, I’m not. Astrology!” he offered in a final act of desperation.
“That’s predicting the future using the stars, and not only does it not work but it’s immoral to try.”
She sighed and sat back up.
“Let’s go back to Aunt Shirley’s: it’s almost lunchtime. I’ll think about it and come up with something…”
She stopped, staring. Perplexed, David followed her eyes and found they were resting on the cover of his book: The Mysterious Message. When he looked back at Jenny, her face was lit up by a brilliant grin.
“That’s it!” she exclaimed.
“That’s what I’ll study; ghosts!”
He stared at her.
“We’re in the South, right? The haunted South! We’ll go looking for ghosts!”
“Is…that really a good idea?”
“It’s a great idea! The supernatural is a criminally understudied aspect of reality. We’ll be doing valuable work and having fun at the same time.”
David would have like to be able to say this was the worst idea she had ever come up with. He really would have.
“Jenny, have you read many ghost stories?”
“Sure! Hamlet, The Aeneid, A Christmas Carol…”
“I was thinking of more recent ones.”
“A few, why?”
“They don’t exactly make meeting ghosts sound like ‘fun’.”
“That’s just fiction; they have to make it sound scary to sell books. We’re going to be trying to learn.”
“I don’t think that will make much difference.”
But Jenny wasn’t listening. She was so excited by her new project that she had gotten to her feet and was practically skipping about the tree, her long hair flying out behind her like a flag, as she expanded upon her idea.
“Think about it; it’s a completely new field of investigation! Most of the work that’s been done has been useless because people keep trying to treat them like normal phenomena, but you can’t because if they’re really ghosts, they aren’t!”
“But I’ve got a philosophical background as much as a scientific one, so I can take them as they really are.”
“And there’s the perfect place right in town! Everyone knows Roam House is haunted…”
“Jenny!” David said, standing up and catching her by the shoulder. “I don’t think you’ve thought this through!”
“Of course I haven’t; that’s what I’m doing right now.”
“Okay, then let’s add in the fact that you’re afraid of the dark.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it.
“No, I’m not,” she said unconvincingly.
“So, when you woke me up at one AM in a panic because your nightlight went out…?”
“That…it was just the one time.”
He smiled at her.
“I’m not afraid of the dark,” she went on. “I…I just don’t like it coming on me all of a sudden. I mean, if you woke up in the middle of the night to find yourself in the dark, you’d get scared too.”
“No, because I always sleep in the dark.”
“But if you don’t have to be in the dark, why would you? It makes no sense!”
“Okay, maybe I’ll give you the dark, but you are afraid of a lot of other things. Bugs, for instance. And snakes. Heights. Enclosed spaces. And, now that I think about, ghosts.”
“I am not afraid of ghosts!”
“You had nightmares when we watched House Ghost. And don’t tell me you didn’t, because I’m the one you woke up in the middle of the night to tell about it.”
“It was a scary movie!”
“It was a comedy! The ‘ghost’ was just a girl in a sheet!”
Jenny’s excited face deflated. She sank back down onto the grass.
“I see your point,” she said. “I guess it would be kind of scary, wouldn’t it?”
David sat back down opposite her.
“That is sort of the idea,” he said.
Jenny thought a moment, then shook her head.
“No, I’m gonna do it anyway,” she said. “I’m at least going to try it. Now that I’ve thought of it, I’m just too curious not to see what there is to find.”
David sighed. Yep, that was to be expected.
“Okay,” he said. “So, where do we start?”
“I’m gonna go ask my aunt about Roam House,” she said, bouncing back up. She went over to the tree and climbed back up into the branches.
“Come on, Abel!”
She came back down holding a reddish bundle of fur snoozing in her arm.
“We’ll take him with us for security,” she said. “He’s a drop-bear: they can be vicious when they want.”
“Jenny, he’s not a drop-bear; he’s just a koala you taught to eat bacon.”
The Spring family had so many pets that their house was more of a menagerie, but Abel Magwich was Jenny’s. She never went anywhere without him if she could help it, though he didn’t do much except sleep and occasionally eat.
“Oh, no; he’s a drop bear,” she said. “I’m sure of it.”
“Drop bears don’t exist; they’re a legend the Australians made up to scare tourists.”
“He looks pretty real to me.”
David sighed. This was one of those things that Jenny simply would not entertain any doubt on, no matter how often he tried to convince her. And, given that she was about a hundred times smarter than he was, he wasn’t entirely sure he was right.
“Fine,” he said. “Let’s go see about that haunted house.”