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Someone in the Basement

 

The basement was huge—a low-ceilinged room that stretched out into shadowy darkness ahead of her and to the left. It wasn’t an empty darkness—she could see what appeared to be low hills lurking in the shadows. Another light bulb shone dimly in a far corner. Did that mean someone was down here? One of the workmen, maybe? She thought of calling out, “Anyone here?” But there was something still and heavy about the silence that made her afraid to break it. She would just look around a little, quietly, and then she would climb up the stairs and leave.

 

The air had a smell like the damp, earthy underside of rocks. Once her eyes had adjusted to the dimness, she saw that the hills were piles of furniture, a great crammed-together mass with just a narrow passage winding through it. Tables lay with their feet in the air, and between the feet were other tables, and dining room chairs and stools and chests of drawers, and on top of the chests were more chairs, upside down, making a nest for footstools and mirrors and lamp bases and unidentifiable things covered in sheets. Far back against the wall stood four-poster beds, some piled with three or four mattresses, and great looming wardrobes with mirrored doors. All of it had turned the same dirt-gray color because of the dust that coated it. Cobwebs drifted in long strings from the ceiling, brushing Nickie’s face as she walked by. Otis squirmed in her arms.

 

She followed the passage that twisted through all this—it was like walking down a tunnel, almost, because the furniture was stacked shoulder-high. She moved toward the light.

 

She heard a scrape, and then a rustling sound.

 

She stopped, held her breath, and listened. Was someone in here? She bent down and peered through the forest of furniture legs, but it was too dark to see.

 

Something stirred over by the wall. Wood knocked against wood, a head rose from the jumble of furniture, and a voice spoke.

 

“Pa?” it said. “Is that you?”

 

“No,” said Nickie. Her heart jumped, but curiosity kept her from running away.

 

The head ducked down again. There was more scraping and rustling, and then someone crawled out from beneath a big table: a boy with cobwebs in his hair.

 

“I know whoyou are,” the boy said. He held his hands cupped together as if protecting something. “The old guy’s granddaughter.”

 

“Great-granddaughter,” said Nickie.

 

“And who’sthat ?” He nodded at Otis, who was squirming in Nickie’s arms.

 

“It’s Otis,” she said. “I’m taking care of him for somebody. Who are you?” She couldn’t see the boy’s face; the light was behind him. It cast his huge, blurry shadow onto a cabinet that leaned against the headboard of a bed.

 

“Grover,” said the boy. “My pa is fixing your pipes.”

 

“But what are you doing down here?”

 

The boy sprang toward her all of a sudden. “Lying in wait!” he cried. “For unwary creatures to fall into my trap!”



 

Nickie shrieked and then instantly regretted it, because he laughed to see that he’d scared her.

 

“I already caught one unwary creature,” he said. He held up his clasped hands. “It’s a prisoner now, awaiting its fate.”

 

“What is it?”

 

He stepped toward her and she stepped back. She couldn’t help it. He might have a spider in his hands, and he might be the kind of boy who would suddenly throw it at you.

 

“I’ll show you if you’re brave enough to look,” he said. He stretched out his hands and opened them so she could see what he held. It was not a spider. She couldn’t tell what it was. Something small and pinkish. Otis strained forward, sniffing madly. She put her hand around his muzzle.

 

“An infant mouse!” the boy cried. “There’s eight of them in a nest down there by the heating pipe.”

 

“Let me see,” said Nickie. “Hold it in the light.”

 

He did. It had hairless, almost transparent skin, tiny, twitching paws, and little blind eyes. It was about as big as a quarter. “Why did you steal it?” she asked him.

 

“I need it,” he said. “For my snake.”

 

“What?”

 

“For my snake to eat.”

 

She looked up at the boy’s face, which was framed in blond curly hair. His ears stuck out. She knew, suddenly, who he was.

 

“You don’t believe me?” he said.

 

“I believe you,” she said. “But I don’t like it.” She turned around and started back the way she’d come.

 

He followed her up the stairs and out of the basement. She set Otis down, and he sniffed Grover’s shoes with great interest.

 

“Where’d the dog come from?” Grover asked.

 

“I’m just taking care of him for a little while,” Nickie said. “He’s a secret—don’t tell about him, all right?”

 

Grover tilted his head upward and yelled, “Hey, everybody, guess what, there’s a—”

 

Nickie shouted, “Stop it!”

 

He laughed. “I’ll keep your secret,” he said. “Now you owe me a favor.”

 

“Are you really going to give that baby mouse to a snake?” Nickie asked.

 

“Yep.” Grover stretched his mouth into a wicked grin. “Because I’mmeeean andeeeevil, ” he said, and gave a maniac laugh. “Worse than”—he lowered his voice to a gruesome whisper—“Hoyt McCoy. Have you heard of him?”

 

Nickie nodded, feeling a lurch in her stomach.

 

“Well, I’m much worse than him,” Grover said.

 

“You have spiderwebs in your hair,” said Nickie. She turned and walked away from him, through the back door and into the house. What terrible luck, she thought. A boy right here where she could get to know him—and he turns out to be the boy with the snakes. And on top of that, a kidnapper and murderer of baby mice. She couldn’t possibly fall in love with someone like him.

 

She went upstairs again, planning to read until Crystal got home. She switched on the lamp and picked up her great-grandfather’s notebook. On the floor beside her, Otis went to sleep and dreamed, making soft littlewip-wip noises and fluttering his paws. Nickie read:

 

Legs very weak and painful. Spent the day reading the scientific journals. Intrigued by this notion of extra dimensions—other worlds right next to ours? Had a chat with M but of course can’t understand a word.

 

What might that mean? She knew about three dimensions—up, down, and sideways. What were extra dimensions? Who was M? She read on:

 

Extraordinary experience last night: Went into the back bedroom to look for the scissors, thought I saw someone in there, over by the bed—dark-haired figure, transparent swirl of skirt. Dreadful feeling of sorrow hit me like a wave. Had to grab the doorknob, almost fell. Figure faded, vanished. Maybe something wrong with my eyes. Or heart.

 

He was ninety-three when he died. Maybe he was losing his mind a little bit, thinking he was seeing ghosts. She read on:

 

Brenda B. came by today. All worked up, trying to figure out what Althea is saying and what to do about it. Kept talking about how she’s studying every holy book she can get her hands on, aiming to understand God’s word. I quoted St. Augustine to her: “If you understand it, it isn’t God.” Gave her a cup of chamomile tea.

 

That was interesting. But then came another mystifying one:

 

String theory—M theory?—eleven dimensions—gravity waves—alternate universes? Possible leakage between one universe and another? Amazing stuff. M says his research is very promising.

 

Maybe he thought he’d slipped into an alternate universe in the back bedroom and seen a ghost, somehow. Which one was the back bedroom, anyhow? Nickie left the sleeping Otis and went down to the second floor, hoping to catch sight of the ghost herself. It was clear which one was the back bedroom: its window looked out over the backyard. She saw no ghost in that room, but through the window she saw Grover, who was probably waiting for his father. He was walking along the low wall that bordered the concrete terrace and crouching down every now and then to study the ground, maybe looking for more creatures to capture. She watched him for a minute. He was definitely good-looking. She liked the springy way he moved, and his floppy hair more or less covered up his sticking-out ears. She couldn’t fall in love with him, of course, because of the snakes and the baby mouse, but she decided to go down and talk to him again anyhow.

 

When Grover saw her come outside, he beckoned to her, and she went over to him.

 

“Listen,” he said, in an urgent whisper. “I want to show you something amazing. No human eye has ever lit on it before.”

 

Nickie was wary. “Is it about snakes?”

 

“No, no,” said Grover. “I told you, no one has ever seen this.”

 

“Not even you?”

 

“Not even me.”

 

“Well, what is it?” Nickie said.

 

Grover reached into his lunch bag and brought out a small green apple.

 

“I’ve seen apples before,” Nickie said.

 

“Yeah, but watch this.” Grover took out his pocketknife, pulled the blade out, and sliced the apple in half across the middle. He pointed to the inside—the white flesh oozing juice, the five little seeds in a star shape.

 

“I’ve seen that, too,” said Nickie.

 

“No, you haven’t,” Grover said. “No one has. Not a single person has ever seen the inside of this apple until now. It is a completely new sight to the human eye.” He took a big bite out of one half of the apple and stood there chewing, with a wide, satisfied smile across his face.

 

“Oh, you think you’re so clever,” Nickie said. She grabbed the other half of the apple out of his hand. She was annoyed at being tricked, but she couldn’t help smiling a little, too. What he’d said was true, after all.

 

An idea popped into her head. “I know somethingyou’ve never seen before,” she said. “No human eye has ever seen it, or everwill see it.”

 

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Grover, munching on his apple.

 

“Yes, it does. I’ll show you.”

 

“But if you show me, then I will have seen it.”

 

“No, you won’t,” said Nickie. “Just wait here. I’ll go get it.” She ran inside, went to her bedroom, and came back out clutching a piece of paper. She held it out. “Do you know what this is?”

 

Grover peered at it. “It’s some fake monster out of a science-fiction movie,” he said.

 

“Nope,” said Nickie. “It’s a dust mite. In this picture, it’s magnified many, many zillion times. You will never see it in real life, because it’s smaller than the eye can see.”

 

“Hah,” said Grover. He looked up at her and quirked an eyebrow. “Where’d you get it?”

 

“I cut it out of a magazine. I like strange, interesting things.”

 

“You don’t like snakes, though,” Grover said. “Probably you’re afraid of them.”

 

“I am not.”

 

“You’d never want to see a snake eat a mouse.”

 

“Maybe I would.” As soon as she said this, she realized it was true. It would be a horrible thing to see, but interesting. And it might help her decide if there was something evil about this boy or not.

 

“Really?” Grover looked surprised.

 

“Really.”

 

“I don’t believe you. You’re just saying that to sound big.”

 

This was somewhat true, but Nickie wasn’t going to admit it. “Just tell me when,” she said. “I’ll come and see it.”

 

So he said she should come the next day about three-thirty, and he told her how to get to his house. Just in time, she remembered not to say she already knew where he lived.

 

Crystal got back around five. She came in the front door, her cheeks red with cold and her eyes sparkling, talking and talking about the lovely scenery in the surrounding hills. “This really is a gorgeous area,” she said. “I hadsuch a wonderful time.”

 

“Good,” said Nickie, not really listening.

 

“And Len told me some interesting things about Yonwood,” Crystal said. “A woman here has had some kind of religious experience, apparently. People think it means Yonwood is a sort of chosen place, and they’ll be safe even if there’s war.”

 

Nickie started paying closer attention. “Does Len think that?”

 

“He doesn’t know what to think,” Crystal said, flinging her coat on a chair. “He was in school with this Prophet person. She was a shy, bookish little girl, he said, not the type to grab for attention. So he thinks maybe what happened to her was real. Have you heard anything about it?”

 

“A little,” Nickie said, trying to look uninterested.

 

“Tomorrow,” said Crystal, “I’m going to have my hair done at the local beauty shop. I’ll probably come out looking like a dandelion, but at least that’ll be better thanthis mess.” She swatted at her bangs.

 

“Good idea,” said Nickie, though she thought Crystal looked fine as she was.

 

“After that,” Crystal went on, “I’m going into Asheville for some shopping. I don’t suppose you want to come.”

 

“No,” Nickie said. “I don’t want to come.”

 

“What are you going to do?”

 

“Oh, nothing much,” Nickie said. She didn’t think it was a good idea to mention snakes or mice.

 

“You’re such a good girl,” Crystal said. “All this time on your own, and you never get bored or get into trouble. It’s amazing.”

 

Nickie just smiled.

 

 

CHAPTER 15

______________

 

Up to the Woods

 

A few times during the next day, which was Monday, Grover found himself thinking about Nickie as he sat in his desk at school. He wasn’t thinking about her in a boy-girl sort of way. The notion of “being in love” never entered his mind. He was thinking about her in an interesting-person sort of way. It wasn’t often that he met anybody, especially a girl, who cared about things like dust mites. He was looking forward to showing her his snakes later on, after school. It would be fun to see if she was scared after all.

 

But first he had to do some hunting. Just before two o’clock, he filled in the last answers on his English test and then staged a highly realistic coughing fit. “Can’t breathe! Nurse’s office!” he gasped, and he staggered, choking, out of the classroom. Then he slipped out a side door and trotted up Fern Street to the path that led into the woods.

 

The forest was his second home. He knew all the trails that threaded up the mountainside. He knew the creeks and the outcroppings of rock and the places where salamanders were likely to be hiding under rotting logs. In the summer, he spent hours up here. Sometimes he scrambled through brush and waded down streams, but other times he just found a good spot and sat still. He had learned that if he sat without moving for a long time, he would see things. Animals would come out from their hiding places and potter around in the open, not realizing he was there. Once, at dusk on a summer evening, a spotted skunk walked past him, so close he could see the long, curved nails on its front feet.

 

Today he was after some dinner for his red belly snake. The milk snake would get the baby mouse, which he was trying to keep alive so that Nickie could watch it being eaten. For the red belly, a few good-sized slugs and maybe a small salamander would do. Actually, he could get these in his own backyard pretty easily. But hewanted to go into the woods. He hadn’t been for a while, because of homework and bad weather and working on jobs with his father. He missed it.

 

He was aware that people had been talking lately about someone lurking up there, maybe a terrorist planning dark deeds. But Grover wasn’t worried about him. He didn’t think about him much. Talk about terrorists and war was the sort of talk that just slid off his brain. He was too occupied with his own concerns to pay much attention to it.

 

He started along a steep uphill trail, which would take him, in fifteen minutes or so, to a place where a stream rushed between shallow banks. He could get down to the water’s edge easily there and find a few of the things that liked living in damp places. He’d brought a plastic jar with him to take them home in.

 

The rhythm of his steps said, Happy to be here, happy to be here. Rays of sunlight shot between the clouds, making spots of light like polka dots on the ground. On either side, the woods were thick—everything close in, dense, stickery, twined with vines, here and there a bare-twigged mountain ash with red berries like decorations. The whirr of bird wings rushed up from bushes as he passed. He was always looking beside the trail, which grew narrower as he climbed higher, for the holes and burrows that an animal might be living in. Holes, rotting logs, sun-warmed rocks—all those were places favored by snakes and therefore favored by Grover.

 

As he walked, he hummed a little tune—an ambling, careless tune that went with being happy and trotting along and knowing what he was doing—and his eyes scanned the woods and the ground for anything of interest, and his mind traveled off where it usually did, to his plan to join the Arrowhead Wilderness Reptile Expedition this summer. It was perfect for him—Addison Pugh, a famous herpetologist, was leading it, and it was out in Arizona, where he’d never been and where the snakes would be all different from the ones here. He would have a great time, he would learn a huge amount, and he would meet people who could help him on the way to his career. He had to go. How could something as trivial as $375 stand in the way? It was very inconvenient that his family didn’t have any spare money. On the other hand, it had forced him to be creative. He felt pretty confident about the cereal jingle he’d made up, and he’d solved the cryptogram and sent it in quickly. Sweepstakes weren’t so promising, because winning was just luck. But he’d entered so many of them—at least fifty just in the last few weeks—that hehad to win something. It wouldn’t take much—just a few small prizes from three or four different contests, and he’d have enough.

 

All these thoughts swirling through his mind kept him a little less observant than he usually was. He was up fairly high on the mountainside now, and the trail turned into more of a dotted line up here, blocked every now and then by overgrown bushes or a fallen tree. This didn’t matter to Grover. He climbed over or went around whatever was in the way; he always knew where he was. But it meant he had to watch his feet more, stepping over stuff and being careful not to trip, so at first he didn’t see that something was moving farther up the mountainside, where the trees were denser. The sound of his own footsteps covered up the sound that anyone else’s footsteps might have made. A few yards farther on, he came to the place where a muddy path led down the stream bank to the place he wanted to go, and there he paused for a second. That was when he heard a distant rustling, the sort of rustling that only something big makes.

 

He froze. Without moving any other part of himself, he turned his head toward where the sound seemed to have come from. The trees and the thick undergrowth beneath them made it impossible to see very far, or at least to see clearly. All he could see was a patch of paleness far off in the distance. It moved, paused, moved again, and disappeared. He stood still for another three or four minutes, but he heard no more rustling and saw nothing, either. So he went on down the stream bank and sat on a rock by the water.

 

Nothing large and pale lived in the woods, as far as he knew. He couldn’t think what it could possibly be. Maybe some huge white bird? A stork? But why would there be a stork in the woods? There wouldn’t. A ghost? He didn’t believe in ghosts. Anyway, a ghost wouldn’t make a rustling sound, would it?

 

So maybe the talk about someone lurking up here was worth paying attention to after all. Grover felt a small shiver of fear. Maybe this terrorist was up here just waiting for someone to kidnap. Give me a million dollars to fund my terrorist organization, or else I’ll slice this boy up and scatter him in the pines.

 

Grover put his arms across his knees and hunched down, bending his face toward the water. The stream rushed by, carrying leaves and bits of twig, making the weeds at the water’s edge flow sideways. He stayed that way for a while, imagining what he would do if a terrorist stepped suddenly from behind a tree and grabbed him. The best thing would be to have a snake with him at the time, so he could terrify the terrorist with it and startle him into letting go. A venomous snake would be best. If he didn’t happen to have a snake, he’d have to struggle. Too bad he didn’t know karate or any of those other martial arts. He could kick, though. He was strong and agile, and he could bite. He pictured himself twisting like a giant boa constrictor around the terrorist and biting him in the back of the neck.

 

It would be best, though, not to get caught in the first place. So he got busy with what he’d come for. He turned over rocks, dug the toe of his shoe into crumbling logs, lifted up sodden leaf litter, and poked sticks into holes. Before long he had some nice grubs, a millipede, five water snails, two good-sized slugs, and a small purplish salamander with gold spots on its back. He put these all in his jar and started down the trail.

 

 

CHAPTER 16

______________

 

The Snake’s Dinner

 

Shortly before three-thirty, Nickie set out for Grover’s house. She’d seen it from the back—at least a glimpse of it beyond the shed and the fruit trees—but now she saw the front for the first time. It was a one-story yellow house with two battered tricycles standing out in the yard and three saggy steps leading up to a porch. On the porch was a couch covered in green material worn almost to white on the seat and arms, and on the couch sat a very old woman wearing a red housedress with a zipper up the front and a baggy lavender sweater. As Nickie came up the walk, the old woman peered at her.

 

“You’re not from here,” she said.

 

“No,” said Nickie. “I’m just visiting.”

 

The old woman nodded. She was wearing, Nickie noticed, yellow bedroom slippers with ducks on the toes.

 

“I’m looking for Grover,” Nickie said.

 

But Grover must have seen her coming. The door opened, and there he was. “Youdid come,” he said. “Amazing.”

 

“Got yourself a girlfriend,” the old woman said to Grover.

 

“She isn’t mygirlfriend, Granny,” Grover said. “Just a girl.”

 

Inside, the house was dim and crowded. The TV was on—it was the president, announcing that only four days remained before the deadline he’d set for the Phalanx Nations. But no one was paying attention. The living room was full of sagging furniture, and every piece of furniture seemed to have a child climbing on it, or curled up in it, or crawling out from under it. They all stared at Nickie when she came in.

 

“My brothers and sisters,” Grover said, waving a hand at them.

 

“How many are there?” Nickie asked, spotting another one toddling up the hall.

 

“Six. The twins and four more. Plus me—I’m the oldest.”

 

He led her down a short hall that went right through the house. The walls were covered with photographs—school pictures, wedding pictures, baby pictures, some in frames and some stuck up with thumbtacks.

 

They went out the back door, and Grover led the way across the sloping yard, over the dead grass and brown rain-plastered leaves, between the gnarled trunks of the fruit trees, down to the shed beside the alley.

 

Nickie began to feel nervous. Her stomach clenched.

 

Grover twirled the dial of a combination lock on the latch and opened the shed door. She followed him in. The air had an earthy smell. A few garden tools, mostly broken, hung on hooks on the walls. On a shelf across one wall were the two snake tanks, and on other shelves, and on the floor, and on a small table and a chair were piles and piles of magazines and flattened cereal boxes, soap boxes, and cake mix boxes. The whole mess was sprinkled here and there with little bits of bent cardboard.

 

“What’s all that?” Nickie asked.

 

“Contests,” said Grover. “Sweepstakes, lottery tickets, stuff like that. There’s gobs of dollars out there being given away. I enter everything I can find.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because I need money,obviously. ” He made a “how can you be such a moron” face at her. “I want to go on the Arrowhead Wilderness Reptile Expedition this summer, which costs three hundred seventy-five dollars, which I don’t have. So I’m going to win it.”

 

“People hardly ever win contests,” Nickie said. “I don’t know anyone who has.”

 

“Well, you will pretty soon,” Grover said. “Look at this one.” He held up a page torn from a magazine. “You write one paragraph, no more than a hundred words, saying why Armstrong Pickles are the best. Want to hear my paragraph?”

 

“Okay,” said Nickie. She glanced uneasily at the two glass tanks on the shelf, but she didn’t see anything inside, only dry leaves.

 

Grover rummaged around on the table and came up with a sheet of binder paper. He read: “Last Sunday night, I was studying for my math test. It was late, and I was tired. My eyes kept closing so I couldn’t see the numbers in my book. I thought, How am I going to pass this test if I can’t stay awake? Then inspiration hit me. I needed an Armstrong Pickle! I jumped up from my chair and ran to the refrigerator. I pulled one of those big, green, pimply pickles out of the jar. The first cool bite made my brain go ZING! And the next day I got an A on the test.” Grover looked up, grinning. “Only ninety-eight words.”

 

Nickie laughed. “It’s great,” she said. “What do you get if you win?”

 

“You get five hundred dollars plus a whole free crate of pickles,” said Grover. “There’s all kinds of contests. Ones where you think up a slogan, and ones where you make as many words as you can out of some product’s name, and ones where you solve a cryptogram, and—”

 

“Have you won any of them yet?” Nickie asked.

 

“Oh, yeah,” said Grover. “I won six free boxes of Oat Crinklies, and I won a bunch of coupons for Rosepetal laundry soap. Just no money yet, but that will come.”

 

He turned to the snakes. “All right,” he said. “Time to get down to business. First the milk snake. He hasn’t eaten for a few weeks.”

 

“A fewweeks !”

 

“Yep. They don’t eat much in the winter. Snakes out in the wild around here crawl down underground and hardly eat at all till spring. Hey, you know what I saw when I was up in the mountains looking for snake food?”

 

“What?”

 

“I saw that terrorist. The one who broke the restaurant window.”

 

“Youdid ? Weren’t you scared?”

 

“Nah. He was far away. Big, though. Huge. I just caught a glimpse of him.”

 

Grover took the top off one of the tanks. Inside it, the snake stirred, lifting its head and then more and more of itself from the bark and dry leaves that covered it. Rings of black, yellow, and reddish-brown striped its long body.

 

“It doesn’t look a bit like milk,” Nickie said.

 

“I know it,” said Grover, gazing fondly at the snake. “It’s called that because people used to find them in their barns and think they’d come to milk the cows.”

 

From a small cardboard box next to the snake tank, he took out the tiny mouse he’d shown Nickie before. It was pink and wet-looking, with a tiny head and bulgy bluish eyes, and tiny legs with tiny toes like fringe at the ends. It was moving slightly in Grover’s palm, but it looked limp and weak.

 

“Bye-bye, baby,” Grover said. He picked up a long pair of tongs, the kind people use to turn meat on a barbecue grill. His teasing manner was gone now. He moved carefully. All his attention was on what he was doing. He gripped the tiny mouse with the tongs and waved it back and forth before the snake’s head. The snake lifted the front half of its body into the air. Its tongue flicked in and out.

 

“I don’t know,” said Nickie. “Maybe I don’t want to watch.”

 

But it was too late. The snake struck out and snatched the mouse. It withdrew into the tank and wrapped a coil of itself around the mouse’s body to hold it still, and then it opened its mouth extremely wide and began to stuff the mouse’s head into it.

 

“They always eat things headfirst,” Grover remarked. “And they have expandable jaws.”

 

Nickie froze in horror, but she couldn’t take her eyes away. It took only a few seconds for the pink body of the mouse, still wriggling, to disappear down the snake’s throat. For a second, a bit of tail hung over the snake’s lower jaw. Then the whole mouse was gone. The snake stretched out on the sand again. Behind its head was a mouse-sized bulge.

 

Nickie breathed out. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath. She felt ill. “It’s horrible,” she said.

 

“Not really,” said Grover. “It’s how the snake lives. If I didn’t give him a mouse, he’d catch one himself.”

 

“How can you stand to do it? The poor little mouse.”

 

Grover shrugged. “It’s nature,” he said. “Nature likes the snake just as much as the mouse.”

 

“I guess so,” Nickie said.

 

“Well, that’s it,” said Grover. He set down the tongs and put the lid back on the tank. “At least you didn’t faint.”

 

“I’venever fainted,” said Nickie. She felt upset—somewhere between sick and angry.

 

“Want to see the red belly eat?”

 

“No. It’s too weird.”

 

“It’s not weird at all,” Grover retorted. “It happens every day, hundreds of times. If you want to see somethingreally weird, go over to Hoyt McCoy’s house in the middle of the night. He cracks the sky open. I saw it.”

 

“Come on,” said Nickie. “You’re making that up.”

 

“No! I really saw it. A long, skinny line in the sky. He’s doingsomething weird over there. Maybe he’s sending signals to enemy nations! Or he opens the sky, and aliens and demons ooze through!” Grover wiggled his fingers in a creepy, oozing way.

 

Nickie just shook her head. With Grover, she didn’t know how to tell the difference between truth and kidding. “I have to go now,” she said. So Grover led her back across the yard and into the house, down the hall among the toddlers, and out onto the front porch, where the grandmother was still sitting on the old couch.

 

“Going already?” the old woman said.

 

“I showed her the milk snake,” said Grover.

 

“No wonder she’s leaving in a hurry.”

 

“Fed him his dinner,” said Grover.

 

“It was gruesome,” Nickie said.

 

“No kidding,” said the grandma. She eyed Nickie with interest. “You going to introduce me to this young lady?” she asked Grover.

 

“This is my grandmother, Carrie Hartwell,” Grover said to Nickie. “We just call her Granny Carrie.” He turned to his grandmother. “And this is Nickie,” he said.

 

“Nickie Randolph,” said Nickie. “My great-grandfather lived here. His name was Arthur Green.”

 

“Ah,” the grandmother said. “He was on the side of the angels.”

 

Nickie wasn’t sure what this meant, but it sounded all right. She said goodbye and walked back out to the street. Her legs felt shaky and her stomach churned. Was it good, she wondered, to feed a baby mouse to a snake? It wasn’t good for the mouse, but it was for the snake. Was it evil for Grover to do it? She just didn’t know.

 

 

CHAPTER 17

______________

 


Date: 2015-12-18; view: 172


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