Sunday Spoilers


This week’s Sunday Spoilers is from one of my favorite series,


The Ghost in the Computer

Ten years ago, on my sixth birthday  my father disappeared.

No, he didn’t leave. Leaving would imply  suitcases and empty drawers, and late birthday cards with ten-dollar  bills stuffed inside. Leaving would imply he was unhappy with Mom and  me, or that he found a new love elsewhere. None of that was true. He  also did not die, because we would’ve heard about it. There was no car  crash, no body, no police mingling about the scene of a brutal murder.  It all happened very quietly.

On my sixth birthday, my father took  me to the park, one of my favorite places to go at that time. It was a  lonely little park in the middle of nowhere, with a running trail and a  misty green pond surrounded by pine trees. We were at the edge of the  pond, feeding the ducks, when I heard the jingle of an ice cream truck  in the parking lot over the hill. When I begged my dad to get me a  Creamsicle, he laughed, handed me a few bills, and sent me after the  truck.

That was the last time I saw him.

Later, when the  police searched the area, they discovered his shoes at the edge of the  water, but nothing else. They sent divers into the pond, but it was  barely ten feet down, and they found nothing but branches and mud at the  bottom. My father had disappeared without a trace.

For months  afterward, I had a recurring nightmare about standing at the top of that  hill, looking down and seeing my father walk into the pond. As the  water closed over his head, I could hear the ice cream truck singing in  the background, a slow, eerie song with words I could almost understand.  Every time I tried to listen to them, however, I’d wake up.

Not  long after my father’s disappearance, Mom moved us far away, to a tiny  little hick town in the middle of the Louisiana bayou. Mom said she  wanted to “start over,” but I always knew, deep down, that she was  running from something.

It would be another ten years before I  discovered what.

My name is M.eghan Chase.

In less than  twenty-four hours, I’ll be sixteen years old.

Sweet sixteen. It  has a magical ring to it. Sixteen is supposed to be the age when girls  become princesses and fall in love and go to dances and proms and such.  Countless stories, songs, and poems have been written about this  wonderful age, when a girl finds true love and the stars shine for her  and the handsome prince carries her off into the sunset.

I didn’t  think it would be that way for me.

The morning before my birthday,  I woke up, showered, and rummaged through my dresser for something to  wear. Normally, I’d just grab whatever clean-ish thing is on the floor,  but today was special. Today was the day Scott Waldron would finally  notice me. I wanted to look perfect. Of course, my wardrobe is sadly  lacking in the popular-attire department. While other girls spend hours  in front of their closets crying,

“What should I wear?” my drawers  basically hold three things: clothes from Goodwill, hand-me-downs, and  overalls.

I wish we weren’t so poor. I know pig farming isn’t  the most glamorous of jobs, but you’d think Mom could afford to buy me  at least one pair of nice jeans. I glared at my scanty wardrobe in  disgust. Oh, well, I guess Scott will have to be wowed with my  natural grace and charm, if I don’t make an idiot of myself in front of  him.

I finally slipped into cargo pants, a neutral green  T-shirt, and my only pair of ratty sneakers, before dragging a brush  through my white-blond hair. My hair is straight and very fine, and was  doing that stupid floating thing again, where it looked like I’d jammed  my finger up an electrical outlet. Yanking it into a ponytail, I went  downstairs.

Luke, my stepfather, sat at the table, drinking coffee  and leafing through the town’s tiny newspaper, which reads more like  our high school gossip column than a real news source. “Five-legged calf  born on Patterson’s farm,” the front page screamed; you get the idea.  Ethan, my four-year-old half brother, sat on his father’s lap, eating a  Pop-Tart and getting crumbs all over Luke’s overalls. He clutched  Floppy, his favorite stuffed rabbit, in one arm and occasionally tried  to feed it his breakfast; the rabbit’s face was full of crumbs and fruit  filling.

Ethan is a good kid. He has his father’s curly brown  hair, but like me, inherited Mom’s big blue eyes. He’s the type of kid  old ladies stop to coo at, and total strangers smile and wave at him  from across the street. Mom and Luke dote on their baby, but it doesn’t  seem to spoil him, thank goodness.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked as I  entered the kitchen. Opening the cabinet doors, I scoured the boxes of  cereal for the one I liked, wondering if Mom remembered to pick it up.  Of course she hadn’t. Nothing but fiber squares and disgusting  marshmallow cereals for Ethan. Was it so hard to remember Cheerios?

Luke  ignored me and sipped his coffee. Ethan chewed his Pop-Tart and sneezed  on his father’s arm. I slammed the cabinet doors with a satisfying  bang.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked, a bit louder this time. Luke jerked  his head up and finally looked at me. His lazy brown eyes, like those of  a cow, registered mild surprise.

“Oh, hello, Meg,” he said  calmly. “I didn’t hear you come in. What did you say?”

I sighed  and repeated my question for the third time.

“She had a meeting  with some of the ladies at church,” Luke murmured, turning back to his  paper. “She won’t be back for a few hours, so you’ll have to take the  bus.”

I always took the bus. I just wanted to remind Mom that she  was supposed to take me to get a learner’s permit this weekend. With  Luke, it was hopeless. I could tell him something fourteen different  times, and he’d forget it the moment I left the room. It wasn’t that  Luke was mean or malicious, or even stupid. He adored Ethan, and Mom  seemed truly happy with him. But, every time I spoke to my stepdad, he  would look at me with genuine surprise, as if he’d forgotten I lived  here, too.

I grabbed a bagel from the top of the fridge and chewed  it sullenly, keeping an eye on the clock. Beau, our German shepherd,  wandered in and put his big head on my knee. I scratched him behind the  ears and he groaned. At least the dog appreciated me.

Luke  stood, gently placing Ethan back in his seat. “All right, big guy,” he  said, kissing the top of Ethan’s head. “Dad has to fix the bathroom  sink, so you sit there and be good. When I’m done, we’ll go feed the  pigs, okay?”

“‘Kay,” Ethan chirped, swinging his chubby legs.  “Floppy wants to see if Ms. Daisy had her babies yet.”

Luke’s  smile was so disgustingly proud, I felt nauseous.

“Hey, Luke,” I  said as he turned to go, “bet you can’t guess what tomorrow is.”

“Mmm?”  He didn’t even turn around. “I don’t know, Meg. If you have plans for  tomorrow, talk to your mother.” He snapped his fingers, and Beau  immediately left me to follow him. Their footsteps faded up the stairs,  and I was alone with my half brother.

Ethan kicked his feet,  regarding me in that solemn way of his. “I know,” he announced softly,  putting his Pop-Tart on the table. “Tomorrow’s your birthday, isn’t it?  Floppy told me, and I remembered.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, turning and  lobbing the bagel into the trash can. It hit the wall with a thump and  dropped inside, leaving a greasy smear on the paint. I smirked and  decided to leave it.

“Floppy says to tell you happy early  birthday.”

“Tell Floppy thanks.” I ruffled Ethan’s hair as I left  the kitchen, my mood completely soured. I knew it. Mom and Luke would  completely forget my birthday tomorrow. I wouldn’t get a card, or a  cake, or even a “happy birthday” from anyone. Except my kid brother’s  stupid stuffed rabbit. How pathetic was that?

Back in my room, I  grabbed books, homework, gym clothes, and the iPod I’d spent a year  saving for, despite Luke’s disdain of those “useless, brain-numbing  gadgets.” In true hick fashion, my stepfather dislikes and distrusts  anything that could make life easier. Cell phones? No way, we’ve got a  perfectly good landline. Video games? They’re the devil’s tools, turning  kids into delinquents and serial killers. I’ve begged Mom over and over  to buy me a laptop for school, but Luke insists that if his ancient,  clunky PC is good enough for him, it’s good enough for the family. Never  mind that dial-up takes flipping forever. I mean, who uses  dial-up anymore?

I checked my watch and swore. The bus would  arrive shortly, and I had a good ten-minute walk to the main road.  Looking out the window, I saw the sky was gray and heavy with rain, so I  grabbed a jacket, as well. And, not for the first time, I wished we  lived closer to town.

I swear, when I get a license and a car, I  am never coming back to this place.

“Meggie?” Ethan hovered  in the doorway, clutching his rabbit under his chin. His blue eyes  regarded me somberly. “Can I go with you today?”

“What?” Shrugging  into my jacket, I gazed around for my backpack. “No, Ethan. I’m going  to school now. Big-kids school, no rug rats allowed.”

I turned  away, only to feel two small arms wrap around my leg. Putting my hand  against the wall to avoid falling, I glared down at my half brother.  Ethan clung to me doggedly, his face tilted up to mine, his jaw set.  “Please?” he begged. “I’ll be good, I promise. Take me with you? Just  for today?”

With a sigh, I bent down and picked him up.

“What’s  up, squirt?” I asked, brushing his hair out of his eyes. Mom would need  to cut it soon; it was starting to look like a bird’s nest. “You’re  awfully clingy this morning. What’s going on?”

“Scared,” Ethan  muttered, burying his face in my neck.

“You’re scared?”

He  shook his head. “Floppy’s scared.”

“What’s Floppy scared of?”

“The  man in the closet.”

I felt a small chill slide up my back.  Sometimes, Ethan was so quiet and serious, it was hard to remember he  was only four. He still had childish fears of monsters under his bed and  bogeymen in his closet. In Ethan’s world, stuffed animals spoke to him,  invisible men waved to him from the bushes, and scary creatures tapped  long nails against his bedroom window. He rarely went to Mom or Luke  with stories of monsters and bogeymen; from the time he was old enough  to walk, he always came to me.

I sighed, knowing he wanted me to  go upstairs and check, to reassure him that nothing lurked in his closet  or under his bed. I kept a flashlight on his dresser for that very  reason.

Outside, lightning flickered, and thunder rumbled in the  distance. I winced. My walk to the bus was not going to be pleasant.

Dammit,  I don’t have time for this.

Ethan pulled back and looked at  me, eyes pleading. I sighed again. “Fine,” I muttered, putting him down.  “Let’s go check for monsters.”

He followed me silently up the  stairs, watching anxiously as I grabbed the flashlight and got down on  my knees, shining it under the bed. “No monsters there,” I announced,  standing up. I walked to the closet door and flung it open as Ethan  peeked out from behind my legs. “No monsters here, either. Think you’ll  be all right now?”

He nodded and gave me a faint smile. I started  to close the door when I noticed a strange gray hat in the corner. It  was domed on top, with a circular rim and a red band around the base: a  bowler hat.

Weird. Why would that be there?

As I  straightened and started to turn around, something moved out of the  corner of my eye. I caught a glimpse of a figure hiding behind Ethan’s  bedroom door, its pale eyes watching me through the crack. I jerked my  head around, but of course there was nothing there.

Jeez, now  Ethan’s got me seeing imaginary monsters. I need to stop watching  those late-night horror flicks.

A thunderous boom directly  overhead made me jump, and fat drops plinked against the windowpanes.  Rushing past Ethan, I burst out of the house and sprinted down the  driveway.

I was soaked when I reached the bus stop. The late  spring rain wasn’t frigid, but it was cold enough to be uncomfortable. I  crossed my arms and huddled under a mossy cypress, waiting for the bus  to arrive.

Wonder where Robbie is? I mused, gazing down the  road. He’s usually here by now. Maybe he didn’t fleel like getting  drenched and stayed home. I snorted and rolled my eyes. Skipping  class again, huh? Slacker. Wish I could do that.

If only I had  a car. I knew kids whose parents gave them cars for their  sixteenth birthday. Me, I’d be lucky if I got a cake. Most of my  classmates already had licenses and could drive themselves to clubs and  parties and anywhere they wanted. I was always left behind, the backward  hick girl nobody wanted to invite.

Except Robbie, I  amended with a small mental shrug. At least Robbie will remember.  Wonder what kooky thing he has planned flor my birthday tomorrow? I  could almost guarantee it would be something strange or crazy. Last  year, he snuck me out of the house for a midnight picnic in the woods.  It was weird; I remembered the glen and the little pond with the  fireflies drifting over it, but though I explored the woods behind my  house countless times since then, I never found it again.

Something  rustled in the bushes behind me. A possum or a deer, or even a fox,  seeking shelter from the rain. The wildlife out here was stupidly bold  and had little fear of humans. If it wasn’t for Beau, Mom’s vegetable  garden would be a buffet for rabbits and deer, and the local raccoon  family would help themselves to everything in our cupboards.

A  branch snapped in the trees, closer this time. I shifted uncomfortably,  determined not to turn around for some stupid squirrel or raccoon. I’m  not like “inflate-a-boob” Angie, Ms. Perfect Cheerleader, who’d flip out  if she saw a caged gerbil or a speck of dirt on her Hollister jeans.  I’ve pitched hay and killed rats and driven pigs through knee-deep mud.  Wild animals don’t scare me.

Still, I stared down the road, hoping  to see the bus turn the corner. Maybe it was the rain and my own sick  imagination, but the woods felt like the set for The Blair Witch  Project.

There are no wolves or serial killers out here, I  told myself. Stop being paranoid



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