R. L. Stine, Say Cheese And Die!
″There′s nothing to do in Pitts Landing,″ Michael Warner said, his hands shoved into the pockets of his faded denim cutoffs.
″Yeah. Pitts Landing is the pits,″ Greg Banks said.
Doug Arthur and Shari Walker muttered their agreement.
Pitts Landing is the Pits. That was the town slogan, according to Greg and his three friends. Actually, Pitts Landing wasn′t much different from a lot of small towns with quiet streets of shady lawns and comfortable, old houses.
But here it was, a balmy fall afternoon, and the four friends were hanging around Greg′s driveway, kicking at the gravel, wondering what to do for fun and excitement.
″Let′s go to Grover′s and see if the new comic books have come in,″ Doug suggested.
″We don′t have any money, Bird,″ Greg told him.
Everyone called Doug ″Bird″ because he looked a lot like a bird. A better nickname might have been ″Stork.″ He had long, skinny legs and took long, storklike steps. Under his thick tuft of brown hair, which he seldom brushed, he had small, birdlike brown eyes and a long nose that curved like a beak. Doug didn′t really like being called Bird, but he was used to it.
″We can still look at the comics,″ Bird insisted.
″Until Grover starts yelling at you,″ Shari said. She puffed out her cheeks and did a pretty good imitation of the gruff store owner: ″Are you paying or staying?″
″He thinks he′s cool,″ Greg said, laughing at her imitation. ″He′s such a jerk.″
″I think the new X-Force is coming in this week,″ Bird said.
″You should join the X-Force,″ Greg said, giving his pal a playful shove. ″You could be Bird Man. You′d be great!″
″We should all join the X-Force,″ Michael said. ″If we were super-heroes, maybe we′d have something to do.″
″No, we wouldn′t,″ Shari quickly replied. ″There′s no crime to fight in Pitts Landing.″
″We could fight crabgrass,″ Bird suggested. He was the joker in the group.
The others laughed. The four of them had been friends for a long time. Greg and Shari lived next door to each other, and their parents were best friends. Bird and Michael lived on the next block.
″How about a baseball game?″ Michael suggested. ″We could go down to the playground.″
″No way,″ Shari said. ″You can′t play with only four people.″ She pushed back a strand of her crimped, black hair that had fallen over her face. Shari was wearing an oversized yellow sweatshirt over bright green leggings.
″Maybe we′ll find some other kids there,″ Michael said, picking up a handful of gravel from the drive and letting it sift through his chubby fingers. Michael had short red hair, blue eyes, and a face full of freckles. He wasn′t exactly fat, but no one would ever call him skinny.
″Come on, let′s play baseball,″ Bird urged. ″I need the practice. My Little League starts in a couple of days.″
″Little League? In the fall?″ Shari asked.
″It′s a new fall league. The first game is Tuesday after school,″ Bird explained.
″Hey—we′ll come watch you,″ Greg said.
″We′ll come watch you strike out,″ Shari added. Her hobby was teasing Bird.
″What position are you playing?″ Greg asked.
″Backstop,″ Michael cracked.
No one laughed. Michael′s jokes always fell flat.
Bird shrugged. ″Probably the outfield. How come you′re not playing, Greg?″
With his big shoulders and muscular arms and legs, Greg was the natural athlete of the group. He was blond and good-looking, with flashing gray-green eyes and a wide, friendly smile.
″My brother Terry was supposed to go sign me up, but he forgot,″ Greg said, making a disgusted face.
″Where is Terry?″ Shari asked. She had a tiny crush on Greg′s older brother.
″He got a job Saturdays and after school. At the Dairy Freeze,″ Greg told her.
″Let′s go to the Dairy Freeze!″ Michael exclaimed enthusiastically.
″We don′t have any money—remember?″ Bird said glumly.
″Terry′ll give us free cones,″ Michael said, turning a hopeful gaze on Greg.
″Yeah. Free cones. But no ice cream in them,″ Greg told him. ″You know what a straight-arrow my brother is.″
″This is boring,″ Shari complained, watching a robin hop across the sidewalk. ″It′s boring standing around talking about how bored we are.″
″We could sit down and talk about how bored we are,″ Bird suggested, twisting his mouth into the goofy half-smile he always wore when he was making a dumb joke.
″Let′s take a walk or a jog or something,″ Shari insisted. She made her way across the lawn and began walking, balancing her white high-tops on the edge of the curb, waving her arms like a high-wire performer.
The boys followed, imitating her in an impromptu game of Follow the Leader, all of them balancing on the curb edge as they walked.
A curious cocker spaniel came bursting out of the neighbors′ hedge, yapping excitedly. Shari stopped to pet him. The dog, its stub of a tail wagging furiously, licked her hand a few times. Then the dog lost interest and disappeared back into the hedge.
The four friends continued down the block, playfully trying to knock each other off the curb as they walked. They crossed the street and continued on past the school. A couple of guys were shooting baskets, and some little kids played kickball on the practice baseball diamond, but no one they knew.
The road curved away from the school. They followed it past familiar houses. Then, just beyond a small wooded area, they stopped and looked up a sloping lawn, the grass uncut for weeks, tall weeds poking out everywhere, the shrubs ragged and overgrown.
At the top of the lawn, nearly hidden in the shadows of enormous, old oak trees, sprawled a large, ramshackle house. The house, anyone could see, had once been grand. It was gray shingle, three stories tall, with a wraparound screened porch, a sloping red roof, and tall chimneys on either end. But the broken windows on the second floor, the cracked, weather-stained shingles, the bare spots on the roof, and the shutters hanging loosely beside the dust-smeared windows were evidence of the house′s neglect.
Everyone in Pitts Landing knew it as the Coffman house. Coffman was the name painted on the mailbox that tilted on its broken pole over the front walk.
But the house had been deserted for years—ever since Greg and his friends could remember.
And people liked to tell weird stories about the house: ghost stories and wild tales about murders and ghastly things that happened there. Most likely, none of them were true.
″Hey—I know what we can do for excitement,″ Michael said, staring up at the house bathed in shadows.
″Huh? What are you talking about?″ Greg asked warily.
″Let′s go into the Coffman house,″ Michael said, starting to make his way across the weed-choked lawn.
″Whoa. Are you crazy?″ Greg called, hurrying to catch up to him.
″Let′s go in,″ Michael said, his blue eyes catching the light of the late afternoon sun filtering down through the tall oak trees. ″We wanted an adventure. Something a little exciting, right? Come on—let′s check it out.″
Greg hesitated and stared up at the house. A cold chill ran down his back.
Before he could reply, a dark form leapt up from the shadows of the tall weeds and attacked him!
Greg toppled backwards onto the ground. ″Aah!″ he screamed. Then he realized the others were laughing.
″It′s that dumb cocker spaniel!″ Shari cried. ″He followed us!″
″Go home, dog. Go home!″ Bird shooed the dog away.
The dog trotted to the curb, turned around, and stared back at them, its stubby tail wagging furiously.
Feeling embarrassed that he′d become so frightened, Greg slowly pulled himself to his feet, expecting his friends to give him grief. But they were staring up at the Coffman house thoughtfully.
″Yeah, Michael′s right,″ Bird said, slapping Michael hard on the back, so hard Michael winced and turned to slug Bird. ″Let′s see what it′s like in there.″
″No way,″ Greg said, hanging back. ″I mean, the place is kind of creepy, don′t you think?″
″So?″ Shari challenged him, joining Michael and Bird, who repeated her question: ″So?″
″So . . . I don′t know,″ Greg replied. He didn′t like being the sensible one of the group. Everyone always made fun of the sensible one. He′d rather be the wild and crazy one. But, somehow, he always ended up sensible.
″I don′t think we should go in there,″ he said, staring up at the neglected old house.
″Are you chicken?″ Bird asked.
″Chicken!″ Michael joined in.
Bird began to cluck loudly, tucking his hands into his armpits and flapping his arms. With his beady eyes and beaky nose, he looked just like a chicken.
Greg didn′t want to laugh, but he couldn′t help it.
Bird always made him laugh.
The clucking and flapping seemed to end the discussion. They were standing at the foot of the broken concrete steps that led up to the screened porch.
″Look. The window next to the front door is broken,″ Shari said. ″We can just reach in and open the door.″
″This is cool,″ Michael said enthusiastically.
″Are we really doing this?″ Greg, being the sensible one, had to ask. ″I mean—what about Spidey?″
Spidey was a weird-looking man of fifty or sixty they′d all seen lurking about town. He dressed entirely in black and crept along on long, slender legs. He looked just like a black spider, so the kids all called him Spidey.
Most likely he was a homeless guy. No one really knew anything about him—where he′d come from, where he lived. But a lot of kids had seen him hanging around the Coffman house.
″Maybe Spidey doesn′t like visitors,″ Greg warned.
But Shari was already reaching in through the broken windowpane to unlock the front door. And after little effort, she turned the brass knob and the heavy wooden door swung open.
One by one, they stepped into the front entryway, Greg reluctantly bringing up the rear. It was dark inside the house. Only narrow beams of sunlight managed to trickle down through the heavy trees in front, creating pale circles of light on the worn brown carpet at their feet.
The floorboards squeaked as Greg and his friends made their way past the living room, which was bare except for a couple of overturned grocery store cartons against one wall.
Spidey′s furniture? Greg wondered.
The living room carpet, as threadbare as the one in the entry way, had a dark oval stain in the center of it. Greg and Bird, stopping in the doorway, both noticed it at the same time.
″Think it′s blood?″ Bird asked, his tiny eyes lighting up with excitement.
Greg felt a chill on the back of his neck. ″Probably ketchup,″ he replied. Bird laughed and slapped him hard on the back.
Shari and Michael were exploring the kitchen. They were staring at the dust-covered kitchen counter as Greg stepped up behind them. He saw immediately what had captured their attention. Two fat, gray mice were standing on the countertop, staring back at them.
″They′re cute,″ Shari said. ″They look just like cartoon mice,″
The sound of her voice made the two rodents scamper along the counter, around the sink, and out of sight.
″They′re gross,″ Michael said, making a disgusted face. ″I think they were rats—not mice.″
″Rats have long tails. Mice don′t,″ Greg told him.
″They were definitely rats,″ Bird muttered, pushing past them and into the hallway. He disappeared toward the front of the house.
Shari reached up and pulled open a cabinet over the counter. Empty. ″I guess Spidey never uses the kitchen,″ she said.
″Well, I didn′t think he was a gourmet chef,″ Greg joked.
He followed her into the long, narrow dining room, as bare and dusty as the other rooms. A low chandelier still hung from the ceiling, so brown with caked dust, it was impossible to tell that it was glass.
″Looks like a haunted house,″ Greg said softly.
″Boo,″ Shari replied.
″There′s not much to see in here,″ Greg complained, following her back to the dark hallway. ″Unless you get a thrill from dustballs.″
Suddenly, a loud crack made him jump.
Shari laughed and squeezed his shoulder.
″What was that!″ he cried, unable to stifle his fear.
″Old houses do things like that,″ she said. ″They make noises for no reason at all.″
″I think we should leave,″ Greg insisted, embarrassed again that he′d acted so frightened. ″I mean, it′s boring in here.″
″It′s kind of exciting being somewhere we′re not supposed to be,″ Shari said, peeking into a dark, empty room—probably a den or study at one time.
″I guess,″ Greg replied uncertainly.
They bumped into Michael. ″Where′s Bird?″ Greg asked.
″I think he went down in the basement,″ Michael replied.
″Huh? The basement?″
Michael pointed to an open door at the right of the hallway. ″The stairs are there.″
The three of them made their way to the top of the stairs. They peered down into the darkness. ″Bird?″
From somewhere deep in the basement, his voice floated up to them in a horrified scream: ″Help! It′s got me! Somebody—please help! It′s got me!″
″It′s got me! It′s got me!″
At the sound of Bird′s terrified cries, Greg pushed past Shari and Michael, who stood frozen in open-mouthed horror. Practically flying down the steep stairway, Greg called out to his friend. ″I′m coming, Bird! What is it!″
His heart pounding, Greg stopped at the bottom of the stairs, every muscle tight with fear. His eyes searched frantically through the smoky light pouring in from the basement windows up near the ceiling.
There he was, sitting comfortably, calmly, on an overturned metal trash can, his legs crossed, a broad smile on his birdlike face. ″Gotcha,″ he said softly, and burst out laughing.
″What is it? What happened!″ came the frightened voices of Shari and Michael. They clamored down the stairs, coming to a stop beside Greg.
It took them only a few seconds to scope out the situation.
″Another dumb joke?″ Michael asked, his voice still trembling with fear.
″Bird—you were goofing on us again?″ Shari asked, shaking her head.
Enjoying his moment, Bird nodded, with his peculiar half-grin. ″You guys are too easy,″ he scoffed.
″But, Doug—″ Shari started. She only called him Doug when she was upset with him. ″Haven′t you ever heard of the boy who cried wolf? What if something bad happens sometime, and you really need help, and we think you′re just goofing?″
″What could happen?″ Bird replied smugly. He stood up and gestured around the basement. ″Look—it′s brighter down here than upstairs.″
He was right. Sunlight from the back yard cascaded down through four long windows at ground level, near the ceiling of the basement.
″I still think we should get out of here,″ Greg insisted, his eyes moving quickly around the large, cluttered room.
Behind Bird′s overturned trash can stood an improvised table made out of a sheet of plywood resting on four paint cans. A nearly flat mattress, dirty and stained, rested against the wall, a faded wool blanket folded at the foot.
″Spidey must live down here!″ Michael exclaimed.
Bird kicked his way through a pile of empty food boxes that had been tossed all over the floor—TV dinners, mostly. ″Hey, a Hungry Man dinner!″ he exclaimed. ″Where does Spidey heat these up?″
″Maybe he eats them frozen,″ Shari suggested. ″You know. Like Popsicles.″
She made her way toward a towering oak wardrobe and pulled open the doors. ″Wow! This is excellent″ she declared. ″Look!″ She pulled out a ratty-looking fur coat and wrapped it around her shoulders. ″Excellent!″ she repeated, twirling in the old coat.
From across the room, Greg could see that the wardrobe was stuffed with old clothing. Michael and Bird hurried to join Shari and began pulling out strange-looking pairs of bell-bottom pants, yellowed dress shirts with pleats down the front, tie-dyed neckties that were about a foot wide, and bright-colored scarves and bandannas.
″Hey, guys—″ Greg warned. ″Don′t you think maybe those belong to somebody?″
Bird spun around, a fuzzy red boa wrapped around his neck and shoulders. ″Yeah. These are Spidey′s dress-up clothes,″ he cracked.
″Check out this baad hat,″ Shari said, turning around to show off the bright purple, wide-brimmed hat she had pulled on.
″Neat,″ Michael said, examining a long blue cape. ″This stuff must be at least twenty-five years old. It′s awesome. How could someone just leave it here?″
″Maybe they′re coming back for it,″ Greg suggested.
As his friends explored the contents of the wardrobe, Greg wandered to the other end of the large basement. A furnace occupied the far wall, its ducts covered in thick cobwebs. Partially hidden by the furnace ducts, Greg could see stairs, probably leading to an outside exit.
Wooden shelves lined the adjoining wall, cluttered with old paint cans, rags, newspapers, and rusty tools.
Whoever lived here must have been a real handyman, Greg thought, examining a wooden worktable in front of the shelves. A metal vise was clamped to the edge of the worktable. Greg turned the handle, expecting the jaws of the vise to open.
But to his surprise, as he turned the vise handle, a door just above the worktable popped open. Greg pulled the door all the way open, revealing a hidden cabinet shelf.
Resting on the shelf was a camera.
For a long moment, Greg just stared at the camera.
Something told him the camera was hidden away for a reason.
Something told him he shouldn′t touch it. He should close the secret door and walk away.
But he couldn′t resist it.
He reached onto the hidden shelf and took the camera in his hands.
It pulled out easily. Then, to Greg′s surprise, the door instantly snapped shut with a loud bang.
Weird, he thought, turning the camera in his hands.
What a strange place to leave a camera. Why would someone put it here? If it were valuable enough to hide in a secret cabinet, why didn′t they take it with them?
Greg eagerly examined the camera. It was large and surprisingly heavy, with a long lens. Perhaps a telephoto lens, he thought.
Greg was very interested in cameras. He had an inexpensive automatic camera, which took okay snapshots. But he was saving his allowance in hopes of buying a really good camera with a lot of lenses.
He loved looking at camera magazines, studying the different models, picking out the ones he wanted to buy.
Sometimes he daydreamed about traveling around the world, going to amazing places, mountaintops and hidden jungle rivers. He′d take photos of everything he saw and become a famous photographer.
His camera at home was just too crummy. That′s why all his pictures came out too dark or too light, and everyone in them had glowing red dots in their eyes.
Greg wondered if this camera was any good.
Raising the viewfinder to his eye, he sighted around the room. He came to a stop on Michael, who was wearing two bright yellow feather boas and a white Stetson hat and had climbed to the top of the steps to pose.
″Wait! Hold it!″ Greg cried, moving closer, raising the camera to his eye. ″Let me take your picture, Michael.″
″Where′d you find that?″ Bird asked.
″Does that thing have film in it?″ Michael demanded.
″I don′t know,″ Greg said. ″Let′s see.″
Leaning against the railing, Michael struck what he considered a sophisticated pose.
Greg pointed the camera up and focused carefully. It took a short while for his finger to locate the shutter button. ″Okay, ready? Say cheese.″
″Cheddar,″ Michael said, grinning down at Greg as he held his pose against the railing.
″Very funny. Michael′s a riot,″ Bird said sarcastically.
Greg centered Michael in the viewfinder frame, then pressed the shutter button.
The camera clicked and flashed.
Then it made an electronic whirring sound. A slot pulled open on the bottom, and a cardboard square slid out.
″Hey—it′s one of those automatic-developing cameras,″ Greg exclaimed. He pulled the square of cardboard out and examined it. ″Look—the picture is starting to develop.″
″Let me see,″ Michael called down, leaning on the railing.
But before he could start down the stairs, everyone heard a loud crunching sound.
They all looked up to the source of the sound—and saw the railing break away and Michael go sailing over the edge.
″Noooooo!″ Michael screamed as he toppled to the floor, arms outstretched, the feather boas flying behind him like animal tails.
He turned in the air, then hit the concrete hard on his back, his eyes frozen wide in astonishment and fright.
He bounced once.
Then cried out again: ″My ankle! Owwww! My ankle!″ He grabbed at the injured ankle, then quickly let go with a loud gasp. It hurt too much to touch it.
Still holding the camera and the photo, Greg rushed to Michael. Shari and Bird did the same.
″We′ll go get help,″ Shari told Michael, who was still on his back, groaning in pain.
But then they heard the ceiling creak.
Footsteps. Above them.
Someone was in the house.
Someone was approaching the basement stairs.
They were going to be caught.
The footsteps overhead grew louder.
The four friends exchanged frightened glances. ″We′ve got to get out of here,″ Shari whispered.
The ceiling creaked.
″You can′t leave me here!″ Michael protested. He pulled himself to a sitting position.
″Quick—stand up,″ Bird instructed.
Michael struggled to his feet. ″I can′t stand on this foot.″ His face revealed his panic.
″We′ll help you,″ Shari said, turning her eyes to Bird. ″I′ll take one arm. You take the other.″
Bird obediently moved forward and pulled Michael′s arm around his shoulder.
″Okay, let′s move!″ Shari whispered, supporting Michael from the other side.
″But how do we get out?″ Bird asked breathlessly.
The footsteps grew louder. The ceiling creaked under their weight.
″We can′t go up the stairs,″ Michael whispered, leaning on Shari and Bird.
″There′s another stairway behind the furnace,″ Greg told them, pointing.
″It leads out?″ Michael asked, wincing from his ankle pain.
Greg led the way. ″Just pray the door isn′t padlocked or something.″
″We′re praying. We′re praying!″ Bird declared.
″We′re outta here!″ Shari said, groaning under the weight of Michael′s arm.
Leaning heavily against Shari and Bird, Michael hobbled after Greg, and they made their way to the stairs behind the furnace. The stairs, they saw, led to wooden double doors up on ground level.
″I don′t see a padlock,″ Greg said warily. ″Please, doors—be open!″
″Hey—who′s down there?″ an angry man′s voice called from behind them.
″It′s—it′s Spidey!″ Michael stammered.
″Hurry!″ Shari urged, giving Greg a frightened push. ″Come on!″
Greg set the camera down on the top step. Then he reached up and grabbed the handles of the double doors.
″Who′s down there?″
Spidey sounded closer, angrier.
″The doors could be locked from the outside,″ Greg whispered, hesitating.
″Just push them, man!″ Bird pleaded.
Greg took a deep breath and pushed with all his strength.
The doors didn′t budge.
″We′re trapped,″ he told them.
″Now what?″ Michael whined.
″Try again,″ Bird urged Greg. ″Maybe they′re just stuck.″ He slid out from under Michael′s arm. ″Here. I′ll help you.″
Greg moved over to give Bird room to step up beside him. ″Ready?″ he asked. ″One, two, three—push!″
Both boys pushed against the heavy wooden doors with all their might.
And the doors swung open.
″Okay! Now we′re outta here!″ Shari declared happily.
Picking up the camera, Greg led the way out. The back yard, he saw, was as weed-choked and overgrown as the front. An enormous limb had fallen off an old oak tree, probably during a storm, and was lying half in the tree, half on the ground.
Somehow, Bird and Shari managed to drag Michael up the steps and onto the grass. ″Can you walk? Try it,″ Bird said.
Still leaning against the two of them, Michael reluctantly pushed his foot down on the ground. He lifted it. Then pushed it again. ″Hey, it feels a little better,″ he said, surprised.
″Then let′s go,″ Bird said.
They ran to the overgrown hedge that edged along the side of the yard, Michael on his own now, stepping gingerly on the bad ankle, doing his best to keep up. Then, staying in the shadow of the hedge, they made their way around the house to the front.
″All right!″ Bird cried happily as they reached the street. ″We made it!″
Gasping for breath, Greg stopped at the curb and turned back toward the house. ″Look!″ he cried, pointing up to the living room window.
A dark figure stood in the window, hands pressed against the glass.
″It′s Spidey,″ Shari said.
″He′s just—staring at us,″ Michael cried.
″Weird,″ Greg said. ″Let′s go.″
They didn′t stop till they got to Michael′s house, a sprawling redwood ranch-style house behind a shady front lawn.
″How′s the ankle?″ Greg asked.
″It′s loosened up a lot. It doesn′t even hurt that much,″ Michael said.
″Man, you could′ve been killed!″ Bird declared, wiping sweat off his forehead with the sleeve of his T-shirt.
″Thanks for reminding me,″ Michael said dryly.
″Lucky thing you′ve got all that extra padding,″ Bird teased.
″Shut up,″ Michael muttered.
″Well, you guys wanted adventure,″ Shari said, leaning back against the trunk of a tree.
″That guy Spidey is definitely weird,″ Bird said, shaking his head.
″You see the way he was staring at us?″ Michael asked. ″All dressed in black and everything? He looked like some kind of zombie or something.″
″He saw us,″ Greg said softly, suddenly feeling a chill of dread. ″He saw us very clearly. We′d better stay away from there.″
″What for?″ Michael demanded. ″It isn′t his house. He′s just sleeping there. We could call the police on him.″
″But if he′s really crazy or something, there′s no telling what he might do,″ Greg replied thoughtfully.
″Aw, he′s not going to do anything,″ Shari said quietly. ″Spidey doesn′t want trouble. He just wants to be left alone.″
″Yeah,″ Michael agreed quickly. ″He didn′t want us messing with his stuff. That′s why he yelled like that and came after us.″
Michael was leaning over, rubbing his ankle. ″Hey, where′s my picture?″ he demanded, straightening up and turning to Greg.
″You know. The picture you snapped. With the camera.″
″Oh. Right.″ Greg suddenly realized he still had the camera gripped tightly in his hand. He set it down carefully on the grass and reached into his back pocket. ″I put it in here when we started to run,″ he explained.
″Well? Did it come out?″ Michael demanded.
The three of them huddled around Greg to get a view of the snapshot.
″Whoa—hold on a minute!″ Greg cried, staring hard at the small, square photo. ″Something′s wrong. What′s going on here?″
The four Mends gaped at the photograph in Greg′s hand, their mouths dropping open in surprise.
The camera had caught Michael in midair as he fell through the broken railing to the floor.
″That′s impossible!″ Shari cried.
″You snapped the picture before I fell!″ Michael declared, grabbing the photo out of Greg′s hand so that he could study it close up. ″I remember it.″
″You remembered wrong,″ Bird said, moving to get another look at it over Michael′s shoulder. ″You were falling, man. What a great action shot.″ He picked up the camera. ″This is a good camera you stole, Greg.″
″I didn′t steal it″—Greg started—″I mean, I didn′t realize—″
″I wasn′t falling!″ Michael insisted, tilting the picture in his hand, studying it from every angle. ″I was posing, remember? I had a big, goofy smile on my face, and I was posing.″
″I remember the goofy smile,″ Bird said, handing the camera back to Greg. ″Do you have any other expression?″
″You′re not funny, Bird,″ Michael muttered. He pocketed the picture.
″Weird,″ Greg said. He glanced at his watch. ″Hey—I′ve got to get going.″
He said good-bye to the others and headed for home. The afternoon sun was lowering behind a cluster of palm trees, casting long, shifting shadows over the sidewalk.
He had promised his mother he′d straighten up his room and help with the vacuuming before dinner. And now he was late.
What was that strange car in the drive? he wondered, jogging across the neighbor′s lawn toward his house.
It was a navy-blue Taurus station wagon. Brand new.
Dad picked up our new car! he realized.
Wow! Greg stopped to admire it. It still had the sticker glued to the door window. He pulled open the driver′s door, leaned in, and smelled the vinyl upholstery.
Mmmmmm. That new-car smell.
He inhaled deeply again. It smelled so good. So fresh and new.
He closed the door hard, appreciating the solid clunk it made as it closed.
What a great new car, he thought excitedly.
He raised the camera to his eye and took a few steps back off the drive.
I′ve got to take a picture of this, he thought. To remember what the car was like when it was totally new.
He backed up until he had framed the entire profile of the station wagon in the viewfinder. Then he pressed the shutter button.
As before, the camera clicked loudly, the flash flashed, and with an electronic whirr, a square undeveloped photo of gray and yellow slid out of the bottom.
Carrying the camera and the snapshot, Greg ran into the house through the front door. ″I′m home!″ he called. ″Down in a minute!″ And hurried up the carpeted stairs to his room.
″Greg? Is that you? Your father is home,″ his mother called from downstairs.
″I know. Be right down. Sorry I′m late!″ Greg shouted back.
I′d better hide the camera, he decided. If Mom or Dad see it, they′ll want to know whose it is and where I got it. And I won′t be able to answer those questions.
″Greg—did you see the new car? Are you coming down?″ his mother called impatiently from the foot of the stairs.
″I′m coming!″ he yelled.
His eyes searched frantically for a good hiding place.
Under his bed?
No. His mom might vacuum under there and discover it.
Then Greg remembered the secret compartment in his headboard. He had discovered the compartment years ago when his parents had bought him a new bedroom set. Quickly, he shoved the camera in.
Peering into the mirror above his dresser, he gave his blond hair a quick brush, rubbed a black soot smudge off his cheek with one hand, then started for the door.
He stopped at the doorway.
The snapshot of the car. Where had he put it?
It took a few seconds to remember that he had tossed it onto his bed. Curious about how it came out, he turned back to retrieve it.
He uttered a low cry as he gazed at the snapshot.
What′s going on here? Greg wondered.
He brought the photo up close to his face.
This isn′t right, he thought. How can this be!
The blue Taurus station wagon in the photo was a mess. It looked as if it had been in a terrible accident. The windshield was shattered. Metal was twisted and bent. The door on the driver′s side was caved in.
The car appeared totaled!
″This is impossible!″ Greg uttered aloud.
″Greg, where are you?″ his mother called. ″We′re all hungry, and you′re keeping us waiting.″
″Sorry,″ he answered, unable to take his eyes off the snapshot. ″Coming.″
He shoved the photo into his top dresser drawer and made his way downstairs. The image of the totaled car burned in his mind.
Just to make sure, he crossed the living room and peeked out of the front window to the driveway.
There stood the station wagon, sparkling in the glow of the setting sun. Shiny and perfect.
He turned and walked into the dining room where his brother and his parents were already seated. ″The new wagon is awesome, Dad,″ Greg said, trying to shake the snapshot′s image from his thoughts.
But he kept seeing the twisted metal, the caved-in driver′s door, the shattered windshield.
″After dinner,″ Greg′s dad announced happily, ″I′m taking you all for a drive in the new car!″
″Mmmm. This is great chicken, Mom,″ Greg′s brother Terry said, chewing as he talked.
″Thanks for the compliment,″ Mrs. Banks said dryly, ″but it′s veal—not chicken.″
Greg and his dad burst out laughing. Terry′s face grew bright red. ″Well,″ he said, still chewing, ″it′s such excellent veal, it tastes as good as chicken!″
″I don′t know why I bother to cook,″ Mrs. Banks sighed.
Mr. Banks changed the subject. ″How are things at the Dairy Freeze?″ he asked.
″We ran out of vanilla this afternoon,″ Terry said, forking a small potato and shoving it whole into his mouth. He chewed it briefly, then gulped it down. ″People were annoyed about that.″
″I don′t think I can go for the ride,″ Greg said, staring down at his dinner, which he′d hardly touched. ″I mean—″
″Why not?″ his father asked.
″Well . . .″ Greg searched his mind for a good reason. He needed to make one up, but his mind was a blank.
He couldn′t tell them the truth.
That he had taken a snapshot of Michael, and it showed Michael falling. Then a few seconds later, Michael had fallen.
And now he had taken a picture of the new car. And the car was wrecked in the photo.
Greg didn′t really know what it meant. But he was suddenly filled with this powerful feeling, of dread, of fear, of . . . he didn′t know what.
A kind of troubled feeling he′d never had before.
But he couldn′t tell them any of that. It was too weird. Too crazy.
″I . . . made plans to go over to Michael′s,″ he lied, staring down at his plate.
″Well, call him and tell him you′ll see him tomorrow,″ Mr. Banks said, slicing his veal. ″That′s no problem.″
″Well, I′m kind of not feeling very well, either,″ Greg said.
″What′s wrong?″ Mrs. Banks asked with instant concern. ″Do you have a temperature? I thought you looked a little flushed when you came in.″
″No,″ Greg replied uncomfortably. ″No temperature. I just feel kind of tired, not very hungry.″
″Can I have your chicken—I mean, veal?″ Terry asked eagerly. He reached his fork across the table and nabbed the cutlet off Greg′s plate.
″Well, a nice ride might make you feel better,″ Greg′s dad said, eyeing Greg suspiciously. ″You know, some fresh air. You can stretch out in the back if you want.″
″But, dad—″ Greg stopped. He had used up all the excuses he could think of. They would never believe him if he said he needed to stay home and do homework on a Saturday night!
″You′re coming with us, and that′s final,″ Mr. Banks said, still studying Greg closely. ″You′ve been dying for this new wagon to arrive. I really don′t understand your problem.″
Neither do I, Greg admitted to himself.
I don′t understand it at all. Why am I so afraid of riding in the new car? Just because there′s something wrong with that stupid camera?
I′m being silly, Greg thought, trying to shake away the feeling of dread that had taken away his appetite.
″Okay, Dad. Great,″ he said, forcing a smile. ″I′ll come.″
″Are there any more potatoes?″ Terry asked.
″It′s so easy to drive,″ Mr. Banks said, accelerating onto the entry ramp to the freeway. ″It handles like a small car, not like a station wagon.″
″Plenty of room back here, Dad,″ Terry said, scooting low in the back seat beside Greg, raising his knees to the back of the front seat.
″Hey, look—there′s a drink holder that pulls out from the dash!″ Greg′s mother exclaimed. ″That′s neat.″
″Awesome, Mom,″ Terry said sarcastically.
″Well, we never had a drink holder before,″ Mrs. Banks replied. She turned back to the two boys. ″Are your seat belts buckled? Do they work properly?″
″Yeah. They′re okay,″ Terry replied.
″They checked them at the showroom, before I took the car,″ Mr. Banks said, signaling to move into the left lane.
A truck roared by, spitting a cloud of exhaust behind it. Greg stared out the front window. His door window was still covered by the new car sticker.
Mr. Banks pulled off the freeway, onto a nearly empty four-lane highway that curved toward the west. The setting sun was a red ball low on the horizon in a charcoal-gray sky.
″Put the pedal to the metal, Dad,″ Terry urged, sitting up and leaning forward. ″Let′s see what this car can do.″
Mr. Banks obediently pressed his foot on the accelerator. ″The cruising speed seems to be about sixty,″ he said.
″Slow down,″ Mrs. Banks scolded. ″You know the speed limit is fifty-five.″
″I′m just testing it,″ Greg′s dad said defensively. ″You know. Making sure the transmission doesn′t slip or anything.″
Greg stared at the glowing speedometer. They were doing seventy now.
″Slow down. I mean it,″ Mrs. Banks insisted. ″You′re acting like a crazy teenager.″
″That′s me!″ Mr. Banks replied, laughing. ″This is awesome!″ he said, imitating Terry, ignoring his wife′s pleas to slow down.
They roared past a couple of small cars in the right lane. Headlights of cars moving towards them were a bright white blur in the darkening night.
″Hey, Greg, you′ve been awfully quiet,″ his mother said. ″You feeling okay?″
″Yeah. I′m okay,″ Greg said softly.
He wished his dad would slow down. He was doing seventy-five now.
″What do you think, Greg?″ Mr. Banks asked, steering with his left hand as his right hand searched the dashboard. ″Where′s the light switch? I should turn on my headlights.″
″The car′s great,″ Greg replied, trying to sound enthusiastic. But he couldn′t shake away the fear, couldn′t get the photo of the mangled car out of his mind.
″Where′s that stupid light switch? It′s got to be here somewhere,″ Mr. Banks said.
As he glanced down at the unfamiliar dashboard, the station wagon swerved to the left.
″Dad—look out for that truck!″ Greg screamed.
A powerful blast of air swept over the station wagon, like a giant ocean wave pushing it to the side.
Mr. Banks swerved the station wagon to the right.
The truck rumbled past.
″Sorry,″ Greg′s dad said, eyes straight ahead, slowing the car to sixty, fifty-five, fifty . . .
″I told you to slow down,″ Mrs. Banks scolded, shaking her head. ″We could′ve been killed!″
″I was trying to find the lights,″ he explained. ″Oh. Here they are. On the steering wheel.″ He clicked on the headlights.
″You boys okay?″ Mrs. Banks asked, turning to check them out.
″Yeah. Fine,″ Terry said, sounding a little shaken. The truck would have hit his side of the car.
″I′m okay,″ Greg said. ″Can we go back now?″
″Don′t you want to keep going?″ Mr. Banks asked, unable to hide his disappointment. ″I thought we′d keep going to Santa Clara. Stop and get some ice cream or something.″
″Greg′s right,″ Mrs. Banks said softly to her husband. ″Enough for tonight, dear. Let′s turn around.″
″The truck didn′t come that close,″ Mr. Banks argued. But he obediently turned off the highway and they headed for home.
Later, safe and sound up in his room, Greg took the photograph out of his dresser and examined it. There was the new station wagon, the driver′s side caved in, the windshield shattered.
″Weird,″ he said aloud, and placed the photo in the secret compartment in his headboard where he had stashed the camera. ″Definitely weird.″
He pulled the camera out of its hiding place and turned it around in his hands.
I′ll try it one more time, he decided.
He walked to his dresser and aimed at the mirror above it.
I′ll take a picture of myself in the mirror, he thought.
He raised the camera, then changed his mind. That won′t work, he realized. The flash will reflect back and spoil the photo.
Gripping the camera in one hand, he made his way across the hall to Terry′s room. His brother was at his desk, typing away on his computer keyboard, his face bathed in the blue light of the monitor screen.
″Terry, can I take your picture?″ Greg asked meekly, holding up the camera.
Terry typed some more, then looked up from the screen. ″Hey—where′d you get the camera?″
″Uh . . . Shari loaned it to me,″ Greg told him, thinking quickly. Greg didn′t like to lie. But he didn′t feel like explaining to Terry how he and his friends had sneaked into the Coffman house and he had made off with the camera.
″So can I take your picture?″ Greg asked.
″I′ll probably break your camera,″ Terry joked.
″I think it′s already broken,″ Greg told him. ″That′s why I want to test it on you.″
″Go ahead,″ Terry said. He stuck out his tongue and crossed his eyes.
Greg snapped the shutter. An undeveloped photo slid out of the slot in front.
″Thanks. See you.″ Greg headed to the door.
″Hey—don′t I get to see it?″ Terry called after him.
″If it comes out,″ Greg said, and hurried across the hall to his room.
He sat down on the edge of the bed. Holding the photo in his lap, he stared at it intently as it developed. The yellows filled in first. Then the reds appeared, followed by shades of blue.
″Whoa,″ Greg muttered as his brother′s face came into view. ″There′s something definitely wrong here.″
In the photo, Terry′s eyes weren′t crossed, and his tongue wasn′t sticking out. His expression was grim, frightened. He looked very upset.
As the background came into focus, Greg had another surprise. Terry wasn′t in his room. He was outdoors. There were trees in the background. And a house.
Greg stared at the house. It looked so familiar.
Was that the house across the street from the playground?
He took one more look at Terry′s frightened expression. Then he tucked the photo and the camera into his secret headboard compartment and carefully closed it.
The camera must be broken, he decided, getting changed for bed.
It was the best explanation he could come up with.
Lying in bed, staring up at the shifting shadows on the ceiling, he decided not to think about it anymore.
A broken camera wasn′t worth worrying about.
Tuesday afternoon after school, Greg hurried to meet Shari at the playground to watch Bird′s Little League game.
It was a warm fall afternoon, the sun high in a cloudless sky. The outfield grass had been freshly mowed and filled the air with its sharp, sweet smell.
Greg crossed the grass and squinted into the bright sunlight, searching for Shari. Both teams were warming up on the sides of the diamond, yelling and laughing, the sound of balls popping into gloves competing with their loud voices.
A few parents and several kids had come to watch. Some were standing around, some sitting in the low bleachers along the first base line.
Greg spotted Shari behind the backstop and waved to her. ″Did you bring the camera?″ she asked eagerly, running over to greet him.
He held it up.
″Excellent,″ she exclaimed, grinning. She reached for it.
″I think it′s broken,″ Greg said, holding on to the camera. ″The photos just don′t come out right. It′s hard to explain.″
″Maybe it′s not the photos. Maybe it′s the photographer,″ Shari teased.
″Maybe I′ll take a photo of you getting a knuckle sandwich,″ Greg threatened. He raised the camera to his eye and pointed it at her.
″Snap that, and I′ll take a picture of you eating the camera,″ Shari threatened playfully. She reached up quickly and pulled the camera from his hand.
″What do you want it for, anyway?″ Greg asked, making a halfhearted attempt to grab it back.
Shari held it away from his outstretched hand. ″I want to take Bird′s picture when he comes to bat. He looks just like an ostrich at the plate.″
″I heard that.″ Bird appeared beside them, pretending to be insulted.
He looked ridiculous in his starched white uniform. The shirt was too big, and the pants were too short. The cap was the only thing that fit. It was blue, with a silver dolphin over the bill and the words: PITTS LANDING DOLPHINS.
″What kind of name is ′Dolphins′ for a baseball team?″ Greg asked, grabbing the bill and turning the cap backwards on Bird′s head.
″All the other caps were taken,″ Bird answered. ″We had a choice between the Zephyrs and the Dolphins. None of us knew what Zephyrs were, so we picked Dolphins.″
Shari eyed him up and down. ″Maybe you guys should play in your street clothes.″
″Thanks for the encouragement,″ Bird replied. He spotted the camera and took it from her. ″Hey, you brought the camera. Does it have film?″
″Yeah. I think so,″ Greg told him. ″Let me see.″ He reached for the camera, but Bird swung it out of his grasp.
″Hey—are you going to share this thing, Greg?″ he asked.
″Huh? What do you mean?″ Greg reached again for the camera, and again Bird swung it away from him.
″I mean, we all risked our lives down in that basement getting it, right?″ Bird said. ″We should all share it.″
″Well . . .″ Greg hadn′t thought about it. ″I guess you′re right, Bird. But I′m the one who found it. So—″
Shari grabbed the camera out of Bird′s hand. ″I told Greg to bring it so we could take your picture when you′re up.″
″As an example of good form?″ Bird asked.
″As a bad example,″ Shari said.
″You guys are just jealous,″ Bird replied, frowning, ″because I′m a natural athlete, and you can′t cross the street without falling on your face.″ He turned the cap back around to face the front.
″Hey, Bird—get back here!″ one of the coaches called from the playing field.
″I′ve got to go,″ Bird said, giving them a quick wave and starting to trot back to his teammates.
″No. Wait. Let me take a fast picture now,″ Greg said.
Bird stopped, turned around, and struck a pose.
″No. I′ll take it,″ Shari insisted.
She started to raise the camera to her eye, pointing it toward Bird. And as she raised it, Greg grabbed for it.
″Let me take it!″
And the camera went off. Clicked and then flashed.
An undeveloped photo slid out.
″Hey, why′d you do that?″ Shari asked angrily.
″Sorry,″ Greg said. ″I didn′t mean to—″
She pulled the photo out and held it in her hand. Greg and Bird came close to watch it develop.
″What the heck is that!″ Bird cried, staring hard at the small square as the colors brightened and took shape.
″Oh, wow!″ Greg cried.
The photo showed Bird sprawled unconscious on his back on the ground, his mouth twisted open, his neck bent at a frightening angle, his eyes shut tight.
″Hey—what′s with this stupid camera?″ Bird asked, grabbing the snapshot out of Snarl′s hand. He tilted it from side to side, squinting at it. ″It′s out of focus or something.″
″Weird,″ Greg said, shaking his head.
″Hey, Bird—get over here!″ the Dolphins′ coach called.
″Coming!″ Bird handed the picture back to Shari and jogged over to his teammates.
Whistles blew. The two teams stopped their practicing and trotted to the benches along the third base line.
″How did this happen!″ Shari asked Greg, shielding her eyes from the sun with one hand, holding the photo close to her face with the other. ″It really looks like Bird is lying on the ground, knocked out or something. But he was standing right in front of us.″
″I don′t get it. I really don′t,″ Greg replied thoughtfully. ″The camera keeps doing that.″
Carrying the camera at his side, swinging it by its slender strap, he followed her to a shady spot beside the bleachers.
″Look how his neck is bent,″ Shari continued. ″It′s so awful.″
″There′s something definitely wrong with the camera,″ Greg said. He started to tell her about the snapshot he took of the new station wagon, and the snapshot of his brother Terry. But she interrupted him before he could get the words out.
″—And that picture of Michael. It showed him falling down the stairs before he even fell. It′s just so strange.″
″I know,″ Greg agreed.
″Let me see that thing,″ Shari said and pulled the camera from his hand. ″Is there any film left?″
″I can′t tell,″ Greg admitted. ″I couldn′t find a film counter or anything.″
Shari examined the camera closely, rolling it over in her hands. ″It doesn′t say anywhere. How can you tell if it′s loaded or not?″
The baseball game got under way. The Dolphins were the visiting team. The other team, the Cardinals, jogged out to take their positions on the field.
A kid in the bleachers dropped his soda can. It hit the ground and spilled, and the kid started to cry. An old station wagon filled with teenagers cruised by, its radio blaring, its horn honking.
″Where do you put the film in?″ Shari asked impatiently.
Greg stepped closer to help her examine it. ″Here, I think,″ he said, pointing. ″Doesn′t the back come off?″
Shari fiddled with it. ″No, I don′t think so. Most of these automatic-developing cameras load in the front.″
She pulled at the back, but the camera wouldn′t open. She tried pulling off the bottom. No better luck. Turning the camera, she tried pulling off the lens. It wouldn′t budge.
Greg took the camera from her. ″There′s no slot or opening in the front.″
″Well, what kind of camera is it, anyway?″ Shari demanded.
″Uh . . . let′s see.″ Greg studied the front, examined the top of the lens, then turned the camera over and studied the back.
He stared up at her with a surprised look on his face. ″There′s no brand name. Nothing.″
″How can a camera not have a name?″ Shari shouted in exasperation. She snatched the camera away from him and examined it closely, squinting her eyes against the bright afternoon sunshine.
Finally, she handed the camera back to him, defeated. ″You′re right, Greg. No name. No words of any kind. Nothing. What a stupid camera,″ she added angrily.
″Whoa. Hold on,″ Greg told her. ″It′s not my camera, remember? I didn′t buy it. I took it from the Coffman house.″
″Well, let′s at least figure out how to open it up and look inside,″ Shari said.
The first Dolphin batter popped up to the second baseman. The second batter struck out on three straight swings. The dozen or so spectators shouted encouragement to their team.
The little kid who had dropped his soda continued to cry. Three kids rode by on bikes, waving to friends on the teams, but not stopping to watch.
″I′ve tried and tried, but I can′t figure out how to open it,″ Greg admitted.
″Give me it,″ Shari said and grabbed the camera away from him. ″There has to be a button or something. There has to be some way of opening it. This is ridiculous.″
When she couldn′t find a button or lever of any kind, she tried pulling the back off once again, prying it with her fingernails. Then she tried turning the lens, but it wouldn′t turn.
″I′m not giving up,″ she said, gritting her teeth. ″I′m not. This camera has to open. It has to!″
″Give up. You′re going to wreck it,″ Greg warned, reaching for it.
″Wreck it? How could I wreck it?″ Shari demanded. ″It has no moving parts. Nothing!″
″This is impossible,″ Greg said.
Making a disgusted face, she handed the camera to him. ″Okay, I give up. Check it out yourself, Greg.″
He took the camera, started to raise it to his face, then stopped.
Uttering a low cry of surprise, his mouth dropped open and his eyes gaped straight ahead. Startled, Shari turned to follow his shocked gaze.
There on the ground a few yards outside the first base line, lay Bird. He was sprawled on his back, his neck bent at an odd and unnatural angle, his eyes shut tight.
″Bird!″ Shari cried.
Greg′s breath caught in his throat. He felt as if he were choking. ″Oh!″ he finally managed to cry out in a shrill, raspy voice.
Bird didn′t move.
Shari and Greg, running side by side at full speed, reached him together.
″Bird?″ Shari knelt down beside him. ″Bird?″
Bird opened one eye. ″Gotcha,″ he said quietly. The weird half-smile formed on his face, and he exploded in high-pitched laughter.
It took Shari and Greg a while to react. They both stood open-mouthed, gaping at their laughing friend.
Then, his heart beginning to slow to normal, Greg reached down, grabbed Bird with both hands, and pulled him roughly to his feet.
″I′ll hold him while you hit him,″ Greg offered, holding Bird from behind.
″Hey, wait—″ Bird protested, struggling to squirm out of Greg′s grasp.
″Good plan,″ Shari said, grinning.
″Ow! Hey—let go! Come on! Let go!″ Bird protested, trying unsuccessfully to wrestle free. ″Come on! What′s your problem? It was a joke, guys.″
″Very funny,″ Shari said, giving Bird a playful punch on the shoulder. ″You′re a riot, Bird.″
Bird finally freed himself with a hard tug and danced away from both of them. ″I just wanted to show you how bogus it is to get all worked up about that dumb camera.″
″But, Bird—″ Greg started.
″It′s just broken, that′s all,″ Bird said, brushing blades of recently cut grass off his uniform pants. ″You think because it showed Michael falling down those stairs, there′s something strange with it. But that′s dumb. Real dumb.″
″I know it,″ Greg replied sharply. ″But how do you explain it?″
″I told you, man. It′s wrecked. Broken. That′s it.″
″Bird—get over here!″ a voice called, and Bird′s fielder′s glove came flying at his head. He caught it, waved with a grin to Shari and Greg, and jogged to the outfield along with the other members of the Dolphins.
Carrying the camera tightly in one hand, Greg led the way to the bleachers. He and Shari sat down on the end of the bottom bench.
Some of the spectators had lost interest in the game already and had left. A few kids had taken a baseball off the field and were having their own game of catch behind the bleachers. Across the playground, four or five kids were getting a game of kickball started.
″Bird is such a dork,″ Greg said, his eyes on the game.
″He scared me to death,″ Shari exclaimed. ″I really thought he was hurt.″
″What a clown,″ Greg muttered.
They watched the game in silence for a while. It wasn′t terribly interesting. The Dolphins were losing 12-3 going into the third inning. None of the players were very good.
Greg laughed as a Cardinal batter, a kid from their class named Joe Garden, slugged a ball that sailed out to the field and right over Bird′s head.
″That′s the third ball that flew over his head!″ Greg cried.
″Guess he lost it in the sun!″ Shari exclaimed, joining in the laughter.
They both watched Bird′s long legs storking after the ball. By the time he managed to catch up with it and heave it towards the diamond, Joe Garden had already rounded the bases and scored.
There were loud boos from the bleachers.
The next Cardinal batter stepped to the plate. A few more kids climbed down from the bleachers, having seen enough.
″It′s so hot here in the sun,″ Shari said, shielding her eyes with one hand. ″And I′ve got lots of homework. Want to leave?″
″I just want to see the next inning,″ Greg said, watching the batter swing and miss. ″Bird is coming up next inning. I want to stay and boo him.″
″What are friends for?″ Shari said sarcastically.
It took a long while for the Dolphins to get the third out. The Cardinals batted around their entire order.
Greg′s T-shirt was drenched with sweat by the time Bird came to the plate in the top of the fourth.
Despite the loud booing from Shari and Greg, Bird managed to punch the ball past the shortstop for a single.
″Lucky hit!″ Greg yelled, cupping his hands into a megaphone.
Bird pretended not to hear him. He tossed away his batter′s helmet, adjusted his cap, and took a short lead off first base.
The next batter swung at the first pitch and fouled it off.
″Let′s go,″ Shari urged, pulling Greg′s arm. ″It′s too hot. I′m dying of thirst.″
″Let′s just see if Bird—″
Greg didn′t finish his sentence.
The batter hit the next ball hard. It made a loud thunk as it left the bat.
A dozen people—players and spectators—cried out as the ball flew across the diamond, a sharp line drive, and slammed into the side of Bird′s head with another thunk.
Greg watched in horror as the ball bounced off Bird and dribbled away onto the infield grass. Bird′s eyes went wide with disbelief, confusion.
He stood frozen in place on the base path for a long moment.
Then both of his hands shot up above his head, and he uttered a shrill cry, long and loud, like the high-pitched whinny of a horse.
His eyes rolled up in his head. He sank to his knees. Uttered another cry, softer this time. Then collapsed, sprawling onto his back, his neck at an unnatural angle, his eyes closed.
He didn′t move.
In seconds, the two coaches and both teams were running out to the fallen player, huddling over him, forming a tight, hushed circle around him.
Crying, ″Bird! Bird!″ Shari leapt off the bleachers and began running to the circle of horrified onlookers.
Greg started to follow, but stopped when he saw a familiar figure crossing the street at a full run, waving to him.
″Terry!″ Greg cried.
Why was his brother coming to the playground? Why wasn′t he at his after-school job at the Dairy Freeze?
″Terry? What′s happening?″ Greg cried.
Terry stopped, gasping for breath, sweat pouring down his bright red forehead. ″I . . . ran . . . all . . . the . . . way,″ he managed to utter.
″Terry, what′s wrong?″ A sick feeling crept up from Greg′s stomach.
As Terry approached, his face held the same frightened expression as in the photograph Greg had snapped of him.
The same frightened expression. With the same house behind him across the street.
The snapshot had come true. Just as the snapshot of Bird lying on the ground had come true.
Greg′s throat suddenly felt as dry as cotton. He realized that his knees were trembling.
″Terry, what is it?″ he managed to cry.
″It′s Dad,″ Terry said, putting a heavy hand on Greg′s shoulder.
″You′ve got to come home, Greg. Dad—he′s been in a bad accident.″
″An accident?″ Greg′s head spun. Terry′s words weren′t making any sense to him.
″In the new car,″ Terry explained, again placing a heavy hand on Greg′s trembling shoulder. ″The new car is totaled. Completely totaled.″
″Oh,″ Greg gasped, feeling weak.
Terry squeezed his shoulder. ″Come on. Hurry.″
Holding the camera tightly in one hand, Greg began running after his brother.
Reaching the street, he turned back to the playground to see what was happening with Bird.
A large crowd was still huddled around Bird, blocking him from sight.
But—what was that dark shadow behind the bleachers? Greg wondered.
Someone—someone all in black—was hiding back there.
″Come on!″ Terry urged.
Greg stared hard at the bleachers. The dark figure pulled back out of sight.
″Come on, Greg!″
″I′m coming!″ Greg shouted, and followed