Read The Haunted Online

Authors: Jessica Verday

The Haunted (7 page)

He glanced up at me when I cleared my throat. “Abigail. Come in. Have a seat.” He pointed to a chair by his desk, and I sat. “How are you… feeling?”

Mr. Knickerbocker wasn’t dressed in his usual polyester shirt and bad tie; instead he had on a T-shirt and jeans and looked like a total stranger. I didn’t even
know
teachers were allowed to wear those types of clothes.

“I’m good. Better, I mean. Feeling better.”

He folded his hands in front of him and looked out at me from behind horn-rimmed glasses. “I’m sure you heard about the science fair. Your partner, Mr. Bennett, took second place.”

“Yes, I heard. I was happy for him.” I moved my foot restlessly against the edge of the chair.
How should I bring this up?

“Actually, I’m glad you stopped by here today, Miss Browning,” he said. “We need to discuss your chemistry grades.”

“Well, um, see, that’s why I’m here, Mr. Knickerbocker,” I blurted out. “I know I’ve been having a hard time, and I wanted to see if there was any way I could maybe do some extra-credit work, or something? I really don’t want to have to take chem again next year.”

Instead of answering that, he asked me, “What are your future goals? College? Career? What do you want to do with your life?”

I thought about just telling him that I didn’t know, or wasn’t sure yet… but something prompted me to be truthful. “I’m a
perfumer. I create perfumes, and I want to have my own business making them for people.”

His eyes lit up. “
Really
. How interesting. Then you must have a particular interest in chemistry, and perhaps botany?”

I nodded. “Granted, I’m more of an experimenter than a strict by-the-book person when I make new perfumes, but the science is fascinating.” Then I shook my head. “Fascinating, but totally overwhelming. I have a hard time really grasping all the mechanics behind it.”

“All it takes is patience and a willingness to learn, Miss Browning. I’ve found that the real problem for most students is that they aren’t willing to apply themselves. Are you willing to apply yourself ?”

Was he talking about extra-credit stuff now? “Um, I guess.…”
Maybe
. It all depended on how much it was going to cut into my summer vacation.

Exhaling loudly, he adjusted his glasses. “I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, as you are the
only
student who needs the extra attention this year, but with your future career goals in mind, and your… absence… during the school year, it can’t be avoided.”

Now I was getting nervous.

“I’m talking summer school, Miss Browning.”

What?
No way. “But, Mr. Knickerbocker… I can’t. I’m…”
Think, think, think, Abbey.
Helping the poor? Going on a mission trip? Working in a soup kitchen?
“Surely there has to be another way… ,” I protested. “
Summer
school?”

He frowned. “I’m not happy about it either. Do you think I want to spend my only free time
here
? I had plans to spend the entire summer floating in my pool, drink in hand.”

Mental image: Mr. Knickerbocker in a swimsuit. YUCK.

“What if I… But what about… Ben!” I said. “Ben’s really good at this stuff. What if he tutors me? And then at the end of the summer I can take another test. Like a final exam. Would that work?”

He gave me a look. “Do you think he’d do it?”

Ben? Absolutely
. “Yup.”

“I’d put together some notes, of course, for what
could
be on the test,” Mr. Knickerbocker mused. “That way I’ll know you’re going over everything.” He stuck out his hand for me to shake. “You’ll have to
pass
this exam, Miss Browning. If you don’t, I’ll give you a failing grade for the entire year, and then you’ll repeat the class. Is it a deal?”

Like that wasn’t a ton of pressure or anything. But at least it beat summer school. I shook his hand. “It’s a deal.”

Five minutes later I was climbing into Mom’s car, trying
to tell myself that I’d done the right thing. A couple of tutoring sessions with Ben were
infinitely
better than summer school with Mr. Knickerbocker. Now all I had to do was convince Ben to give up part of his vacation.…

As soon as we got home, I went up to my room to call him. I dialed his number, let it ring once, and then hung up.

Tapping my phone against my forehead, I took a deep breath, then dialed again… and promptly hung up again.

I threw the phone on my bed and paced back and forth. It was just a question. A simple “Will you do this?” He wouldn’t say no.
Would he?

Bracing myself, I picked the phone back up. I… needed a snack first.

I headed downstairs and moved toward the fridge. My phone rang, and I stared at it. Ben’s number flashed on the caller ID.
Maybe I should

No, no thinking. Just
talking.
“Hello?”

“Hi, Abbey,” he said. “Did you just try to call me?”

“Um, yeah. Sorry, I must have had a bad connection or something. The call kept dropping.” Distracting myself with the food in front of me, I pushed a bottle of juice aside and reached for a can of soda.

“Okay. What’s up?”

]
I moved to a cabinet and gazed up at a row of snack bags. “I wanted to ask you something, Ben.” There was silence, and I pulled down a bag of pretzel sticks. I ripped it open and quickly ate one, trying to think of the best way to ask him for this favor. “Do you… want to get some pizza with me downtown? In, like, thirty minutes?”

“Yeah. Are you home? I’ll come pick you up.”

“Okay. I’ll, uh, I’ll see you in half an hour, then.”

So I was a chicken.
But I will ask him over pizza,
I vowed to myself. I just hoped his answer would be yes.

Right on time, Ben pulled up in his battered green Jeep Cherokee, Candy Christine. I’d teased him about the name when he’d first told me, but now I thought it was kind of cute. He honked once, and I climbed into his car with a shy “Hey.”

“Don’t forget the sweet spot,” Ben reminded me.

I flashed him a grin. “I won’t.” The seat belt had to be pulled down at just the right angle and then snapped in. Once it clicked, Ben threw the car into gear and we pulled away from the curb.

Turning slightly toward him, I sized him up. He looked… different. Taller, maybe? Although it was hard to tell sitting down. And he was
very
tan. He’d obviously spent some time
out in the sun. His darkened skin really set off his brown eyes.

“So… what are your summer plans?” I said. God, that was ten kinds of lame, but I had to ask him
something
. If I continued to stare at him much longer, he might get the wrong idea.

“I’m still working at the Horseman’s Haunt. But I’ll be helping my dad out too. He has this grand idea to plant Christmas trees for next year, and I’ve been roped into slave labor.” He smiled, showing off his pearly whites.

A spark of awareness ran through me. I didn’t remember him being so
cute
.

We drove down Main Street, and he pulled off to park at a meter outside of Tony’s Pizzeria. Once we were both out of the car, he fished a handful of change from his pocket, then fed the meter. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

Tony himself called hello to us as we stepped in, and we headed for a table near the back. The orange plastic tabletop had definitely seen better days, and the faux wooden bench creaked when we sat down.

“What do you want?” Ben asked. “A couple of slices, or a whole pie?”

“I’m pretty hungry. A whole pie sounds good to me.”

“Let me guess, you’re a pepperoni type of girl.”

I shook my head. “I like mine loaded.”

“Seriously?”

“Yup.”

He didn’t look like he believed me.

“You don’t think I can handle it?” I raised one eyebrow at him.

Ben laughed. “No, no. I like mine loaded too. That’s what we’ll get.” He moved to order, and I grabbed a soda from a nearby cooler, carefully reaching around the Coke for a root beer.

“What do you want to drink?” I asked him.

“The same.”

I scooped up another root beer, then popped the top of my soda and waited for Ben to return. He came to sit down a second later.

“Pizza’s in. One large, with the works.”

I nodded and took a sip. Now that we were here, I was losing my nerve again.

“So,” Ben said, opening his can, “what are
your
summer plans?”

“I don’t know. Since it took so long to get over my… mono, I’m not really sure what I’m going to do.” Okay, so that wasn’t
technically
true. I sort of knew one thing I was going to be doing, if Ben agreed to it.

“Gonna work at your uncle’s ice cream place again?”

I shrugged. “Don’t know. Haven’t talked to him about it yet.”

“Will that be… okay? Can anyone get sick if your mono isn’t all gone?”

I almost snorted soda up my nose. “No, no,” I sputtered, reaching for a napkin. “The doctor, um, gave me the all-clear. I’m… better.”

“Oh, cool,” he said. “That’s good.”

“Hey, I didn’t see you at the bridge thing.” I changed the subject. Too much talk about mono and I might blow it.

“Yeah, sorry about that. I got called in to work. I tried to get out of it—”

Tony came bearing our pizza and interrupted him, placing the round aluminum tray in front of us. “One large, with the works! Youse enjoy it now, ’kay?”

“Looks great, Tony,” Ben said. He slid a steaming slice onto a paper plate and handed it over to me, then did the same for himself.

My slice was way too hot to eat yet, but Ben didn’t seem to have a problem.

“So how did it go?” he asked, around a mouthful of cheese.

“It was okay. The mayor said something, I said something, and then we left.”

“I wish I could have been there,” he said softly. He poked the crust of his pizza and then ate the rest of it in two bites.

“I was just sad you weren’t there to hold up your cue card like you promised,” I teased. “But, um… there
is
something else you can help me out with.” I glanced down and said the rest in a rush. “I might have to go to summer school, but I talked Mr. Knickerbocker out of it if you’ll agree to tutor me so I can pass a big test at the end of summer.”

Ben reached for a second slice. “What? That was like a crazy rush of Abbeyspeak. You have to go to summer school?”

I nodded. “Because I basically failed chem.”

“But you talked Mr. Knickerbocker out of it?”

“He said that if you’ll agree to tutor me over the summer, I can just take another final exam instead.” I peeked up at him. “I know it’s asking a lot of you, Ben, since you’re going to have two summer jobs and all. But I really need the help.”

“Well, I
am
good at science,” he said slowly, and I grinned at him.

“Does that mean you’ll do it? Mr. Knickerbocker will give you notes and everything.”

He paused like he had to think for a moment, then nodded. “Sure. I’ll do it.”

I almost jumped up and hugged him right there. “Really?
Really,
really? Seriously, I have no idea how to repay you.”

His eyes glinted mischievously, and he had a wicked grin. “I’m sure I’ll think of something.”

Going for my slice of pizza, I stopped mid-grab and gave a mock sigh. “I know. That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Chapter Five

H
AUNTED

A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.

—“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

I didn’t know what it was that woke me up, but one minute I was sleeping peacefully, and the next I was lying there, staring at the dark wall. Rolling over on my back, I threw off the covers and draped one arm over my eyes. All I wanted was to go back to
sleep
. Why was I awake?

I shut my eyes and tried to relax. Forcing every muscle in my body to go still, I inhaled and exhaled deeply. But my neck was uncomfortable, and I knew I couldn’t stay that way. I flipped my pillow over and felt the smooth, cool side of a pillowcase that had been resting against the sheet. It was heavenly, and I buried my face into it. The scent of fresh laundry still clung
there, and the smell was already making me feel sleepy again.

I grabbed for my second pillow to do the same thing with it, but part of it had slipped down in the space between the mattress and the headboard. I had to give it a good, hard yank. It came free, and I slid a hand underneath to flip it over too.

There was something cold and hard there.

My fingers grasped the small square, and my mind recoiled in recognition of what it was. One of the necklaces Caspian had made for me. Almost compulsively, I stroked the smooth glass plates and found the black satin ribbon attached.

I pulled it out and held it in my palm, horror stealing over me.
How can this be real?
He
wasn’t real. It doesn’t make any sense.

A dreadful urge came next and whispered in my ear,
Put it on.…
My hand shook slightly with the willpower it took not to listen. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how it had gotten there, but there had to be some other explanation for it.

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