Authors: Daniel Pinkwater
We walked back toward downtown Poughkeepsie with Professor Tag.
"So, are you really not crazy anymore?" I asked Molly. "Did one cup of Chicken Nancy's special tea cure you?"
"I think so," Molly said. "But it's hard to put into words, or even feelings. I mean, I have been crazy so long, and when you're crazy you aren't noticing that you're crazy all the timeâbesides, I wasn't crazy every single minute, as you must have noticed. You know what it's like? It's like having forgotten something, and knowing you've forgotten something, only you don't know what it is you've forgotten, obviously,
because you've forgotten it. Only, of course, in this case I am not trying to remember it. So let's change the subject."
"I'm happy for you, of course," Professor Tag said. "But, speaking for myself, not being crazy would make me sad."
"I was a little sad when I was crazy, and I'm noticing that I am not sad at all now," Molly said.
"Then Chicken Nancy did the right thing."
"What else do you know about the Muffin Man?" I asked the professor.
"Well, mainly I know the song and the game we played as children. We would sing, 'Do you know the Muffin Man?' and the adults would steal the muffins from our lunchboxes. Muffins were popular treats when I was a child."
"And at the end of the game, the adults would give the muffins back," I said.
"I don't remember them doing that," the professor said. "I was under the impression they kept them and ate them. Anyway, I did not know the Muffin Man was still around. We thought he was long dead."
"Apparently he is still around," I said.
"And invisible, even," Molly said. "And sort of evil or dangerous, from the way Chicken Nancy was acting."
"I want to hear all about him," I said. "And even more, I want to hear about that picture Chicken Nancy has."
"The one of you," Molly said.
"It's not me," I said. "It's Elizabeth Van Vreemdeling, Cornelius Van Vreemdeling's granddaughter and a friend of Chicken Nancy's mother."
"It's a picture of you," Molly said.
"Because of the whiskers?"
"Because of everything," Molly said. "Professor, you know that picture Chicken Nancy showed us?"
"The one of Audrey?"
"Yes, that one. Of whom is it a portrait?"
"Of whom? Of Audrey, of course," the professor said.
"She said! She plainly said it is a picture of Elizabeth Van Vreemdeling!" I said. "Why and how would she have an old oil painting of me, and why would she tell us it was of someone other than me?"
"You'd have to ask her that," the professor said. "At the very least there's a striking similarity. And here we are at the bookstore, and my goodness, look what a crowd!"
There was quite a crowd. They were milling about in front of the UFO Bookshop, and there were a lot of people inside. I recognized most of themâthey were regular customers. But what were they all doing here at once?
Molly and I threaded our way through the press of people and went inside the shop. Mrs. Gleybner saw us and hurried toward us. "Oh, you're just in time, girls!" she said. "Put on these aprons and start handing around apple cider and cookies. We have an important guest. He will be arriving any moment."
We put on the aprons and carried trays with little paper cups of cider and sugar cookies and offered them to the people. It turned out the important guest
was Eland I. Tankwiper. He was an author, and he was coming to the bookstore to sign copies of his book,
They Are Among Us.
It was all about how aliens from space are here on Earth and living disguised as regular Earth people. Eland I. Tankwiper was a specialist in subjects such as space aliens. I had read parts of the book. We had a copy in the store. It claimed that Woodrow Wilson, Johann Sebastian Bach, Walt Disney, and Josef Stalin were all residents of other planets who had come to live on Earth. Now there was a whole box of copies of
They Are Among Us,
and lots of copies stacked in a pyramid in the window.
The people all applauded when Tankwiper arrived. He had on a beautiful blue suit, and a long flowing mustache. Mr. and Mrs. Gleybner shook hands with him. They stood around for a while, laughing and smiling and chatting. Then Mrs. Gleybner caught sight of me and motioned for me to come toward her. I knew what was coming.
"We have a surprise for you, Mr. Tankwiper," Mrs. Gleybner said. "I don't suppose you thought you would meet a real extraterrestrial in a bookshop here in Poughkeepsie. This is Audrey, our very own space alien."
Eland I. Tankwiper pulled a pair of horn-rimmed eyeglasses out of his breast pocket and put them on.
He peered at me through the glasses, took them off and cleaned them with his handkerchief, and put them on again. Then he put his glasses back in his pocket and said, "I regret to contradict you, Mr. and Mrs. Gleybner, but this young lady is not an extraterrestrial. If you refer to the illustrations in the back of my book showing the various types of space aliens, you will find there is not one that looks like her. She is nothing but a common or garden variety Earth girl with a set of whiskers. Very nice whiskers, to be sure, but she is nothing out of the ordinary."
The Gleybners were crestfallen. They did their best to hide it, but I could see that Eland I. Tankwiper had spoiled one of their favorite imaginary beliefs. I had long before stopped trying to explain that I was not a space alienâit seemed to make them so happy to believe I was.
So I took offense at what Tankwiper had said. First of all, it was impolite of him to disappoint the Gleybners like that. And I didn't care for his saying I was nothing out of the ordinary. I wondered how many people he had met who came from another plane of existence, not to mention someone extraordinary enough that a wise woman more than a hundred years old had an oil painting of someone who looked enough like her that her friends thought it
Mr. Tankwiper sat at a little table, and the people lined up to have their books signed. Molly and I continued to pass around the cider and cookies. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, but I took a dim view of the whole business. When I got a chance I whispered to Mrs. Gleybner, "Just because he wrote a book does not mean he knows everything."
"Do not worry yourself," Mrs. Gleybner said. "We have authors here quite often, and we are used to them."
By the time all the books had been signed and all the people had departed and Mr. Tankwiper had left with his pockets stuffed with cookies, it was already late afternoon.
"It will be getting dark by the time we get to Chicken Nancy's house," I said. "Maybe we should stay here tonight, and go in the morning."
"She is expecting us," Molly said. "And we can't very well telephone her to say we're not coming. If we walk fast, we can get there before nightfall."
"She was particular that she didn't want us wandering around after dark."
"So we won't. Let's tell Mrs. Gleybner, and start out right away."
Of course, carrying Molly's things slowed us down a bit. And then there was the runaway horse.
We were on the street that turned into a semicountry road and led to the place where we would turn the corner at the Christmas tree farm. By this time the sun was low in the sky, but it looked to Molly as though we would make it in plenty of timeâwhen the horse came along. It was an old horse, pale gray, almost white, and wrinkly around the nose, with dull, old-looking eyes, and it shuffled along as though it didn't have much energy. It had a green halter on and was dragging a length of rope.
"It looks like this horse has gotten away from somewhere," Molly said. She grabbed the rope. The horse came to a stop and rested its chin on her shoulder. "Nice horsie," she said, stroking his old nose. "Give him something."
I had some leftover cookies from the bookstore in a paper bag in my pocket. I fished one out and gave it to the horse. He ate it.
"Give him another," Molly said.
The horse wound up eating all the cookies. I was going to give them to Chicken Nancy, but they were storebought cookies, and not very good compared to the ones she baked. The horse thought they were swell.
"What now?" I asked. "We can't just stand here in the street, feeding this horse cookies all day."
"Obviously he has gotten loose from somewhere," Molly said. "We should find out where he belongs."
"How do we do that?" I asked. "Does he have a little tag around his neck, or a horse license?"
"That's dogs," Molly said. "I don't think horses have those."
We were walking now, the horse shambling along with us, probably hoping I had more cookies. "We should ask people if they know where he comes from."
"There's nobody around," I said. "People are in their houses, preparing supper."
"Well, look for someplace farmy-looking," Molly said. "We'll knock on the door."
"What if they don't know?" I asked.
"Well, we can't just leave him in the road. He might get in a collision with a car. He doesn't look very bright. I guess we can just take him with us to Chicken Nancy's. You want to ride him?"
"I don't know how," I said.
"Just haul yourself up onto his back," Molly said. "And I'll lead him."
I put my arms around the horse's neck and scrambled onto his back. I got the feeling he didn't mind it.
Molly handed her bags up to me and I lay them across his sharp backbone in front of me.
"Comfy?" she asked.
"Somewhat," I said. "Why are we doing this?"
"Well, for one thing, I was getting tired of carrying the bags," Molly said. "And you can see farther from up there. See anyone looking like belonging to the horse?"
"There is someone way up the street," I said. "He's coming this way."
"Let's go meet him," Molly said. "With luck, it will be the horse's owner."
In a few minutes we saw a kid. The kid saw us and began to run toward us. He was a big, strapping, muscular kid in overalls and big boots. He had unruly sandy hair and freckles. All he needed was a straw hatâthe perfect picture of a farmboy.
"Diablo! You found Diablo!" the kid shouted. "Thank you!"
"What did he do, run away?" Molly asked.
"More like wandered away," the kid said. "Old as he is, he can hop over the fence, and sometimes he just takes off, strolling. Usually, I find him eating grass near his paddock. This is the farthest he has ever gone."
"Do you live on a farm around here?" I asked.
"No, I live in an apartment house about a mile away," the kid said. "Diablo lives on a farmâor what's left of a farmâup the road and you make a left. Nobody lives thereâthe house burned downâbut there is a shed where Diablo lives, and a little fenced area. I hike over two or three times a day to take care of him."
"What is your name?" Molly asked.
"Call me Jack," the kid said.
"Well, we have to be on our way, Jack," Molly said. "Glad we could help with Diablo."
"Where are you going?" Jack asked.
"Christmas tree farm."
"That's on my way!" Jack said. "Would you like to ride with your friend? Get up on Diablo. He can carry both of you. I'll lead him."
Jack lifted Molly onto the horse as if she weighed nothing, settled her behind me, took hold of the rope, and led the horse.
As I suspected, riding on Diablo was a good deal slower than walking, but it would have been too complicated to explain to Jack that we didn't want to ride once we were already on the horse. Besides, Jack was cute.
"So you live in an apartment and take care of this horse," I said. "What is that all about?"
"I always wanted a horse," Jack said. "When
Diablo's farm burned down, the farmer was going to send him to be dog food, so I asked if I could have him. I have to carry bales of hay on my back from the feed store up the road, and I carry buckets of water from the gas station. He takes up so much of my time and energy that I'm flunking out of high school."
"It is worth it?"
We arrived at the corner and the Christmas tree farm.
"I really appreciate your catching Diablo for me," Jack said after we slid down off the horse's back. "If there is ever anything I can do for you, just come a little way past the Christmas tree farm. You can't miss Diablo's paddock and shedâit's the crummiest thing on the whole road. If I'm not there when you come, I will be soon. And, it's none of my business, but why are you going to the Christmas tree farm when it's almost dark? The place is haunted like nobody's business."