Read The Haunted Online

Authors: Jessica Verday

The Haunted (9 page)

He was a kind and thankful creature… whose spirits rose with eating…

—“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

W hen Ben came over three days later for our first science session, his arms were loaded down with papers. He greeted me and entered the living room.

“Hey… Ben,” I said. Unfortunately, all the steamiest parts of my recent dream chose
that
moment to come flooding back in excruciating detail, and my face flamed.

“Ready to get started?” he asked.

It was just a dream, just a stupid dream.
“Yeah, sure. What’s all that?”

He glanced down. “I brought some of my old notes so you could look them over.” Dropping the stack onto the floor, he took a seat and held up one finger in a dead-on imitation
of Mr. Knickerbocker. “It’s science time. Have a seat, Miss Browning.”

I rolled my eyes but did as he instructed. Snaking one hand forward, I picked up a composition book he had lying on top of the pile. The inside pages were covered with his handwriting. I groaned. “Do we have to cover
all
of this?”

“Yes. It’s divided into different sections.” He took the book from my hands and started reading from it. “Acids and their base chemistry, the elements, basic atomic structure, quantum theory, CHNOPS…”

“CHNOPS? What’s that?”

“The six elements that make up all living matter. Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. CHNOPS is an acronym.”

I buried my face in my hands. He was speaking Greek. “Why can’t we just do something simple, like making a LEGO replica of the solar system or something? God, I hate chemistry.”

Ben grinned and started to do that excited-jumpy thing he’d done once before in the library when we were researching projects for the science fair. “You know, in sixth grade I made one of those out of meatballs. It was great. The entire solar system was edible.”

The look on Ben’s face was so ridiculous that I had to laugh. He was
very
pleased with himself.

“Why does that not surprise me?” I got up. “Before we get started, I want to show you something. Come here.”

He followed me to the kitchen. “Think of it as my way of paying you back.” Throwing open one of the cabinets above the sink, I revealed that it was stuffed with Doritos, cheese curls, pretzels, microwave popcorn, and a dozen other snacks. “Behold, the Ben Cabinet.”

His eyes grew huge. “I think I love you. Are those Funyuns?” He pulled out a yellow-and-green bag. “
These
are the snack food of the gods.”

“They’re all yours. I hate Funyuns.”

We moved back into the living room and took a seat on the floor next to the papers. Ben placed the bag of Funyuns between us and ripped them open. He scooped up a handful and started to crunch.

“I wish Kristen was here,” I said. “She was
so
much better at science than me.”

Ben stopped eating and looked over. I thought for a moment he was going to say something about how he missed Kristen too, but then he said, “Do you remember when we had that debate over evolution versus creationism in biology?
You were in that class with me and Kristen, right?”

Of course I remembered that day. I couldn’t forget it. Two buttons on the top of my shirt had popped off right when I was getting ready to argue my side of the debate. Luckily, thanks to Kristen standing in front of me and literally covering for me, no one else saw it.

“Yeah, I was,” I said. “Kristen was amazing. I’ve never seen anyone think so fast on their feet.”

“She was really good at that,” he added. “When she was switched to my team and only had like five minutes to prepare, she had a list of points already made. Even though she was supposed to be debating
against
creationism, she’d made arguments for both sides.”

I smiled at him. “That was Kris. Always prepared.”

“Did she ever tell you that the only reason I got so many points was because she let me have most of the arguments on her list?”

“No.”
Even
I
could hear the surprise in my voice. “She never told me that.”

“Yup. She said that since I was the captain, her answers were there to benefit the entire team, and I was the one ‘leading the boat.’ I’ll never forget that phrase. I always thought it was funny. ‘Leading the boat’…”

His eyes took on a faraway look. “After that, I knew she wasn’t just some airhead who relied on her looks, or copying someone else’s homework the morning of class, to get by. She really took it seriously, you know?”

I looked down at the floor and tugged on a loose carpet fiber. I’d been guilty of copying Kristen’s homework in homeroom on more than one occasion.

“And when she finally did make an argument,” he continued on, “man, it just blew me away. She said something about how it came down to faith versus science, and even scientists had to have faith every now and then.”

I smiled and we sat there in silence for a while. Finally, Ben cleared his throat. “Okay, let’s actually get started sometime today.”

I nodded and then we got to work.

The next time Ben came over we spent two hours diagramming atoms and protons and neutrons, and it felt like my brain was going to start melting.

“I can’t do this,” I said.

“Want to take a break?”

“Yes,”
I replied eagerly. “Let’s get out of the house.”

We left everything where it was and headed in the general
direction of downtown. I steered him toward the end of the block, where my storefront was waiting, and we passed an antique store along the way.

Ben glanced over at the window and then turned to me. “If you ever go in there, do
not
buy the giant blue urn near the back.”

“Okay. Although I’m not planning on buying an urn anytime soon.… Why not?”

“Because I went in there once with my mom, and I had just eaten this chili corn dog from the street fair. It must have been undercooked, or it was the heat, or something…”

As soon as he said the words “it must have been undercooked,” I realized I did
not
want to hear the end of this story.

“… but I knew I was gonna puke, and the only thing around was that urn.”

Talk about gross.

“No one saw, so I just put the lid back on and didn’t say anything.”

I shook my head, feeling slightly queasy myself. “That’s not right. That’s
so
not right, Ben.”

Then we came to my shop, and I pointed at the bay window, glad to have something else to talk about. “Look there. Isn’t it gorgeous?”

I pressed my face against the glass and cupped my hands around my eyes to block out the sun’s glare. It looked… different. “Does this place look clean to you? Do you think they’re cleaning it up?” I asked him.

He walked over to my side and peered in. “Umm, it kind of just looks old and crappy to me.”

Taking a step back, I tried to see it how he was seeing it. Yeah, the glass was cracked. And there were cobwebs in one corner of the room. Plus, several lightbulbs needed replacing.

But the window itself was actually clean, not grimy like it had been the last time I was here, during Christmas. The floorboards looked freshly scrubbed and polished too.

Some spray bottles and rags were sitting near the back door. I jabbed a finger in their direction. “Look, over there!” I said. “Someone’s definitely been
cleaning
.”

Suddenly, something moved inside the store.

“Did you see that?” I asked.

Ben nodded, and we both looked closer, trying to make out what it was. A figure moved in and out of the light, then disappeared into a back room.

“Come on.” I motioned for Ben to follow me.

“What? What’s up, Abbey? Why does it matter who that is?”

“Because this is
my
store! I mean, the store I’m going to
open one day for my perfume business. And I want to make sure that someone else isn’t renting it.”

He followed me reluctantly to the alley around back. The door was propped open with a plastic milk crate, and I stepped up to look inside the store. “Hello—”

I was cut off as a large person came barreling out of the store and nearly collided with me. He was holding a stack of boxes.

“Sorry,” I said, jumping out of the way. He jumped too, but managed to keep hold of his boxes.

“Oh, my. I didn’t even see you there. Just let me set these down over yonder.”

The man sat the boxes near the wall and then came back to me. “Now, what can I do for you, little missy?”

He swept off the tall black hat he wore, and bowed low. A short red jacket stretched tightly across his shoulders, and I noticed that his black pants were oddly shiny. He looked sort of like a ringmaster from a circus.

“I noticed that someone was cleaning up the store here, and I wondered if it was going to be occupied. I just love the shops downtown.” I widened my smile and gazed up at him.

The man chuckled. “She’s still vacant for now. I was just prettying her up a bit.”

“Do you need any help with that?” I put on my I-am-a-very-polite-teenager voice.

“Ain’t you the nicest thing,” he said. “Thank you for your offer, but I do believe I can manage.”

“Do you own this store?”

“Oh, it’s mine.” He gave me a calculating smile, revealing a large set of white teeth.

“Lovely,” I said. “So since it’s been available for a while, would you be willing to offer a discount to the next person who rented it?” I thought I heard Ben snort, but I ignored him.

“Well, I can’t promise anything, since certain terms would have to be discussed. But I’m a generous landlord.”

“I’ll be graduating soon, so you might be hearing from me.
If
the terms are acceptable.”

“You
are
a clever little thing,” he said. “I think I like you.” Digging into his back pocket, he pulled out a business card and handed it to me with a wink. “Here’s my card.”

I accepted it and looked down. “Thank you, Mr.—”

“Melchom,” he supplied.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Melchom. I’m Abbey Browning.” I stuck out a hand, and we shook. “Good luck with your store.”

I turned to Ben, who had remained amazingly quiet the whole time. “Ready to go?”

He nodded.

Once we were clear of the back entrance, Ben leaned in to me and drawled, “Why, you southern belle, you.”

“Oh, please. I was just being nice.”

Ben scoffed. “You were totally sweet-talking him! I was waiting for you to bat your eyelashes and break out the sweet tea.”

“It’s called using my God-given charm, Ben. Haven’t you ever seen
Gone with the Wind
?”

He just shook his head at me. “Chick flick.” Then he froze mid-step. “Wait a minute.”

“What?”

He leaned in close and inspected my hair. “A bit of straw from the barn jest stuck right in there,” he said, plucking out an imaginary.

I couldn’t help the laughter that bubbled out of me. “You? Are a dork.”

Chapter Seven

A
N
E
MBARRASSMENT

However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air…

—“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

I sat up groggily as Mom knocked on the door, and then glanced over at the clock. 9:34 a.m.

“Do you know that at this time, seventeen years ago on June twenty-first, you arrived after fourteen hours of labor?” she said.

Groaning, I pulled the covers over my head. I had totally forgotten what day it was. “Not the fourteen-hours-of-labor story, Mom.”

She sat down on the bed, and I poked my head out. In her hands was a tray that held plates of French toast, chocolate chip pancakes, a Belgian waffle, and a little bowl of strawberries. She put it on the comforter beside me. “Happy birthday, sweetie.”
She kissed my cheek before looking sappily into my eyes. “My little baby. So grown up.”

“Mom, please.” I sat up and dug into the waffle, taking a moment to scatter some of the strawberries on top of it first.

“I know, I know. I’m sorry. What do you want to do today?”

I thought about it for a minute, then said, “Mani-pedis, lunch at Callenini’s, and then a trip to that supply store up by the cabin, A Thyme and Reason.”

“Sounds good,” she said. “Finish your breakfast, get dressed, and we’ll hit the road.”

I swallowed and then asked, “Are you and Dad going to have a birthday dinner for me tonight?” That was Mom’s usual custom, before everything with Kristen happened.

“Of course we are.”

“Nothing too sappy, Mom,” I begged.
“Pleeease?”

“And here I was looking forward to the slide show of all your naked baby pictures.”

“Mom!”

She laughed. “Okay, okay, I’ll cancel the slide show and the tribute band.”

I cut off a small piece of pancake and waved it at her. “Thank you, Mother. Now go, so I can eat in peace.”

˜   ˜   ˜

Three hours later Mom and I had freshly painted fingers and toes (her color: Pretty in Pink, mine: Rock Me Red), our stomachs were full of delicious Italian food, and we were on our way to A Thyme and Reason.

“I can’t believe how long it’s been since we’ve stopped in here,” I said. “Too long.”

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