O'Dwyer & Grady Starring in Tough Act to Follow
“What we really need,” Virginia said, “is a skeleton.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s just go get one. I think they’re on sale at the A&P.”
Virginia rolled her eyes, like she always does. “Billy, you’re clearly not taking this show seriously enough. How do you suggest we make the set look spooky?”
Calling it a “set” was sort of an exaggeration. We were in the tiny back yard of my Auntie Annie’s house, planning a show for the neighborhood kids. We figured if we charged one cent admission, we could make enough to take ourselves to see "Tarzan the Ape Man."
Our play was going to be a ghost story with tap dancing. We had written the script ourselves.
“How about cobwebs?” I said. “We can get some scraps of cotton from one of the mills and make fake ones.”
“Yeah,” she said. “We could stretch the cotton strands out in the corners of our set.”
“Sure,” I said. “And we could set some old dusty things around, you know, for atmosphere.”
“Not likely. Your aunt” – she glanced toward the house and lowered her voice – “your aunt is so nutty about cleanliness, I don’t think we’d find anything with a speck of dust on it in this house.”
“Well …” I knew I was asking for trouble. “There is a haunted house a few blocks from here. Maybe we could find something good in there.”
I already wished I’d kept my mouth shut. Her eyes had a scary gleam in them. That’s never good.
“Nah, it’s not really haunted. Kids around here just call it that. I don’t believe in ghosts. It’s just an abandoned house with weeds and vines and stuff growing all over it.”
“Is it boarded up?”
“Uh-uh. It’s like the owner just went out one day and never came back. He probably couldn’t keep up his payments.”
That kind of thing had happened to a lot of people in New Bedford lately.
Virginia and I grabbed our bikes, and I led the way. The house I was thinking of was different from most in the Brooklawn Park neighborhood. It was bigger, and it sat way back from the street. It had a low stone wall around the yard like the kind you see around houses that have been here since the Revolutionary War. The house didn’t look that old, but it was obvious that no one had lifted a finger to take care of it in years.
We stopped at the low iron gate in front of the house.
Virginia got off her bike and pushed it open. Now, I should have known the gate in front of an old haunted house would squeak. But boy, did it make me jump. Suddenly I had a bad feeling.
“Well,” I said, “guess there’s nothing here. Let’s go back.”
“It’s perfect.” She headed toward the house. Like a goof, I followed.
“It’s probably locked,” I said. “Let’s go back.”
Virginia whirled on me. “Billy O’Dwyer, this was your idea. You can’t chicken out now.”
“All right, all right,” I said.
We pushed through the tangled vines that covered the yard and climbed the wooden steps to the piazza – where we found that, as I’d astutely predicted, the door was locked. Relieved, I turned to go. But something held me back: Virginia’s grip on my suspenders.
“No you don’t,” she said. “Let’s try a window.”
Next thing I knew, we were scrambling into the dim parlor of the old house. It really did look as if whoever lived here had left in the middle of an ordinary day and never come back.
Virginia walked across the room. She stooped to pick up something from the floor. It was a small brown book. She choked on dust as she leafed through it.
“Here’s the guy’s diary,” she said. Her voice slipped into a deep, dramatic tone as she read: “ ‘They’re all fools. They can rot, for all I care. I’ve got mine, I’ve got plenty. My house, my boat, my treasure. It’s all I need.’ ”
“He sounds mean,” I said.
“Or lonely.” Virginia kept turning pages while I scouted around. “Listen to this,” she said. “He wrote a poem:
‘Riches sweet, swelled with time.
My stock in trade, treasure is mine.
No one’s to know, no one’s to sea,
Rolling and cool, gold it shall be.
At grieving’s end, a world to gain,
The greatest treasure man can know
The answer to a sailor’s pain
Awaits beyond the Sunset’s Glow.’ ”
“I wonder what happened to his treasure?” she said. “What do you think it was?”
“Who knows? He probably just imagined it. Who’s got treasure these days? Let’s go look upstairs. I bet there’s spooky stuff up there.”
In the upstairs hall, we headed for the one open door. It led to a bedroom with a big unmade four-poster. A walnut wardrobe lay face down near the foot of the bed, held a few inches off the floor by something underneath it. The sheets and quilt looked like someone had tried to yank them off the bed; they were barely tucked under the mattress and were stretched across the floor and under the wardrobe.
“What a mess,” I said, halting at the door. “I don’t think there’s anything in here we want.”
But Virginia had already squeezed past me and was poking around inside the room, brushing aside spider webs as she went. “This is really strange,” she said. “Why would anyone leave a house in this condition?”
“We’re looking for props,” I reminded her. “It doesn’t matter why it looks like this, and the place is starting to give me the creeps. Let’s go back downstairs, grab a few things we can use, and get out of here.”
She headed around the corner of the bed toward the window, stumbling on the sheet that had been pinned to the floor by the fallen wardrobe.
“Yikes,” she said, regaining her balance. “There’s something under that sheet.”
I bent to try to move the wardrobe. It was heavy, but I managed to wrench it up just enough for Virginia to pull the bedclothes free. As she did, something clunked against the floor.
We both stood up and screamed.
There, peeking out from beneath the big piece of furniture, was the hideously grinning head of a skeleton.
[ … The skeleton, it turns out, is the owner of the house. Billy and Virginia decide to find the missing treasure, a quest that lands them center stage in a tangled family drama of rivalry and deceit. What they don’t realize until it’s too late is that someone else wants that treasure too, and that someone will stop at nothing to get it.]