From the Book:
You have been chosen for your special skills
to do something that urgently needs to be done.
To learn more, come to the Ballroom at 3:30.
Don't miss this. It will be worth your while – $$$
TWO WEEKS EARLIER …
SNEAKING OUT AT NIGHT – HELPFUL HINTS:
> (i) When lying to your parents, maintain EYE CONTACT.
> (ii) Make sure you ask permission to attend the correct FAKE SLEEPOVER (Boys – Stan Winter's place; Girls – Karen Lobodzic's.)
> (iii) Meet at the OLD ROCKFORD HOUSE at 8:30 pm Friday. (You can't miss it; there's a CRANE with a giant WRECKING BALL parked in front.)
> (iv) Enter through missing planks in BOARDED-UP WINDOW, first floor, east side.
> (v) Bring your SLEEPING BAG.
Remember: The old Rockford House house is a CONDEMNED BUILDING that will be demolished TOMORROW MORNING. There will be no beds, no running water, no furniture, no lights, no TV ....
When the plan came from Griffin Bing, even the tiniest detail had to be perfect. He'd agonized over every fine point and possibility. All except one: What if nobody showed up?
“We probably shouldn't have put in the part about no TV,” Griffin's friend Ben Slovak said glumly .
Griffin and Ben sat cross-legged on their sleeping bags in what had once been an elegant living room. They were surrounded by shredded drapery, remnants of ancient furnishings, and mounds of dust. All around them, the cavernous old house creaked and groaned with hollow, eerie noises. Outside, a thunderstorm raged.
Griffin trained the beam of his flashlight on his wristwatch: 10:34 p.m. “I can't believe it,” he seethed. “How could we get nobody? Twenty-eight people said they were coming!”
“Maybe they're just late,” Ben offered lamely.
“Nine o'clock is late. Ten-thirty is a no-show. Don't they have any self-respect? This is like saying it's totally fine for the adults in this town to walk all over us.”
Ben would have dearly loved to be No-Show #29. Only loyalty to his best friend had brought him here tonight. “Come on, Griffin,” he reasoned. “What difference does it make if two people or two hundred people spend the last night in a condemned building? How does that show the adults that we're standing up for our rights? They're never even going to know about it.”
“We'll know,” Griffin said stoutly, sticking out his jaw. “Sometimes you have to prove to yourself that you're more than just a slab of meat under the shrink wrap in your grocer's freezer. Why do you think I came up with the fake sleepover idea? I wanted to make sure everybody had an excuse to be here. That was the whole point behind the plan.”
The plan. Ben groaned inwardly. It was the best thing about Griffin, and also the worst. Griffin Bing was The Man With The Plan.
“Maybe the other kids wanted to come, but they were scared,” Ben suggested.
“Of what?” Griffin challenged. “Dust? The rain? A whole night with no TV?”
“This house is supposed to be haunted,” Ben insisted. “You know the rumors.”
“What rumors?” Griffin scoffed.
“How do you think it got abandoned in the first place? Old Man Rockford was in jail for cutting up his wife with a chain saw – that's what Darren said.”
“When's the last time Darren 's said anything that 's was been worth the air it took to blow it out of his big fat head?” Griffin exploded. “He also says he's distantly related to the Rockfords — with no proof whatsoever. Besides, they didn't even have chain saws back in Old Man Rockford's time.”
“They had railroads, though,” Ben noted. “According to Marcus, the real murder weapon was a railway spike pounded into her skull.”
Griffin wasn't buying it. “He's just pulling your chain. You know how he loves messing with people.”
“But Pitch doesn't, and you know what she heard? The house is haunted by the spirit of a dog that the old man brought home from Europe after World War One. Or maybe it wasn't a dog.”
Griffin rolled his eyes. “Then what was it? A komodo dragon?”
Ben shrugged. “Nobody knows. But just a few days after it got to town, pets started disappearing. At first it was just little kittens and puppies, but pretty soon fully-grown St. Bernard's were vanishing into thin air. And there were bones buried all around the house – only Rockford wasn't feeding his dog any bones.”
A flash of lightning cast strange angular shadows through the boarded-up windows. Ben paused to let his story sink in. “The townspeople took the law into their own hands. They put rat poison inside a big steak and left it on the doorstep. It never occurred to them that if an evil spirit could live inside a dog, it could live inside something else too – like a house!” He peered around at the shadowed walls, as if expecting to see something supernatural and hideous coming through .
“Oh, come on!” Griffin refused to be shaken . “There's no such thing as a haunted house.”
“Well, Marcus heard the same story,” Ben retorted said with a sniff .
“No, he didn't,” Griffin reminded him. “He heard the one about the railway spike.”
“He heard both. And so did Savannah . Only in her version, it wasn't a dog. It was a baby.”
“Why would the townspeople poison a baby?”
“They didn't. It got carried off by a chicken hawk. But the baby's ghost put a curse on the house to take back all the years it never got to live. There was this schoolteacher – the first non-Rockford ever to live here. No one saw her again after the day she moved in – or maybe they did. People talked about an old, old woman peering out an attic window. But here's the thing: that schoolteacher was only twenty-three.”
A gust of wind blew through the eaves, and an unearthly moaning sound echoed around them. Ben's head retreated turtle-like into his collar, and even Griffin paled a little.
“No offense, Ben, but shut up. You're starting to creep me out.” Griffin panned the crumbling walls with his flashlight. “It's almost eleven. Nobody's coming. Gutless wonders.”
“It's the railway spike,” said Ben nervously. “That's got to be a splitting headache. Literally.”
Griffin spread out his bedroll and lay back, standing his flashlight on its base like a miniature floor lamp. “Let's try to get some sleep. The sooner the sun rises, the sooner we can get out of this rat trap.”
“Maybe we can leave now,” Ben suggested hopefully. “Since nobody else came, they'll never know that we weren't here all night.”
Griffin was horrified. “You mean back down?” These two words were not in his vocabulary.
“I don't want my years sucked away by some baby's ghost!”
“There's no such thing!” Griffin exclaimed.
“Who says you have to believe in ghosts to be afraid of them?” Ben challenged. “All right, fine. I'll sleep.” He rolled over onto his side, pulling his knees to his chest. “But if I wake up eighty-five years old , you owe me twenty bucks.”
They lay there in silence for what seemed like a long time, listening to the machine-gun rhythm of rain on the ancient slate roof.
Griffin stared up at a gaping hole in the ceiling that had once held a chandelier. “I hope you know how much I appreciate this. You're the only kid who had the guts to see it through.” His friend said nothing, so Griffin went on. “I mean it, man. The others – they talk a good game, but where are they? Darren dared half the sixth grade to come. He even made fun of us, said we'd wimp out. But who's the real wimp, huh, Ben?”
His Ben's reply was slow, steady breathing. Almost like – snoring?
Griffin sat up and peered at his friend. Ben was curled into a ball on his bedroll, fast asleep.
Griffin let out a low whistle of admiration. Creepy house, creepy night, and Ben was relaxed enough to doze off. He came off as a big chicken sometimes, but when it really counted, he was too cool for school.
It was harder for Griffin to settle down. Not because he was scared. Not at all.
Griffin stayed up because he was mulling over the reason he and Ben were camping out with dust bunnies and a century of supernatural speculation.
He was thinking about the last plan.
As soon as the town had announced the meeting to decide what would be done with the Rockford land, Griffin had spoken those five fateful words: “Let's work out a plan.”
PROPOSAL FOR DEVELOPMENT
OF ROCKFORD SITE
Griffin Bing – Head Designer
(i) This PLAN, approved by the KIDS of CEDARVILLE, shows how the land of the old ROCKFORD HOUSE can be turned into a SKATE and ROLLER PARK, laid out according to DIAGRAM “A” below (Scale: 1 inch = 12 feet) …
With the help of Ben, a few classmates, and Mr. Martinez, their teacher, Griffin put together a formal presentation to make to the town council. But on the big night, the committee had refused even to hear their proposal. They had already decided on their own project: a Cedarville museum.
It still rankled Griffin . Not losing. Sure, that had been disappointing. But to be ignored completely, brushed off like a mosquito, just because you were young, was unbearable. That was why he was here now, in this ancient dying house. That was why everybody should have been here – every kid who was sick of counting for nothing in this town. It wasn't going to get a skate park built, but at least it would win them some pride.
Anyway, spooky, uncomfortable, and boring as this was for Griffin, it had to be better than lying in bed at home listening to Mom and Dad arguing about money.
He regarded Ben's slumbering form with envy. Try as he might, Griffin was too keyed up to fall asleep.
At last, he began to wander the empty husk of the Rockford house, his flashlight guiding him down hallways and through rooms. At least the thunder had passed, the storm settling into a steady rain. So much for a dark and stormy night.
And then the creature landed in Griffin 's hair.
Full-on terror rocked him. The flashlight dropped from his hand, and the room was plunged into sudden darkness. He slapped desperately at his head as the attacker beat its scalloped wings, burrowing into the Griffin's thick curls, squeaking and screeching. In his frenzy, Griffin tripped over his own flashlight and went down, wrapping himself in cobwebs as he rolled wildly around on the floor. He touched short fur, rubbery skin, and sharp clinging claws, but his slippery assailant resisted his grasping fingers.
It was over as unexpectedly as it had begun. The creature managed to disentangle itself and flew off, leaving Griffin writhing there. He retrieved his light just in time to see a large black bat fluttering up the open stairwell.
You're okay, he told himself, heart thumping. Maximum gross, minimum danger.
He frowned. There, illuminated in the cone-shaped beam was a piece of furniture. Most of the house had been emptied prior to demolition day. Yet here was some kind of old-fashioned desk.
He scrambled to his feet and went over to investigate. It wasn't exactly Antiques Roadshow quality. It was beaten up and cracked, and the roll-top was stuck at an odd angle. By the glow of the flashlight, Griffin played with the many drawers and compartments. There was nothing of interest – just dust and the occasional dead spider.
One tiny drawer wouldn't budge. Griffin pulled and the knob came off in his hand. He tried to pry his fingers behind the face of the drawer, but there was zero movement.
He perched on the edge of the blotter to catch his breath. The seat of his jeans pressed against a small button.
Snap! The locked drawer popped open.
A release switch! This must be some kind of hiding place!
Eagerly, he shone the light inside the narrow compartment. Empty.
No, wait –
At the very back of the drawer, a flash of color caught his eye. He reached in and drew out an old faded card. There was a picture of a loaf of bread in the center, surrounded by the message: TOP DOG BAKERY PRODUCTS – FOR THE SANDWICH OF CHAMPIONS.
He turned it over and examined the other side.
There was a color drawing of a baseball player shouldering a bat. The image wasn't detailed, but the face seemed familiar. Griffin read the name at the bottom:
GEORGE HERMAN (BABE) RUTH
Copyright 2007 by Gordon Korman, used by permission