By Maureen Crane Wartski | Illustrations by Greg Newbold
[dropcap]Y[/dropcap]ou know the Grady house is haunted, right, Evan?”
Icy prickles ran along Evan’s spine as JB Whortley pulled a key out of the cracked flowerpot by the front door.
Old Mr. Grady fell down the stairs and hurt himself yesterday, and the ambulance took him to County Hospital. My dad’s supposed to pick up his mail and stuff, so I’m doing it for him. We’ll have a real close look at the ghost — unless you’re too scared.”
“I’m not s-s-scared.”
Evan hated that he stammered when he was nervous. He hadn’t had time to make friends in his new school, and JB and his sidekick, Milo, were always trying to make his life miserable. For the millionth time, Evan wished his dad’s work hadn’t moved the Forresters to this small town in Texas. He wanted to be back with his pals in his school’s naturalist club in Greensboro, N.C.
The door of the Grady House creaked open.
“He’s scared,” Milo mocked.
If he refused to go in, they’d just torment him more. Evan winced as a floorboard groaned underfoot, but he followed JB into the pitch-dark hall.
Suddenly a ghoulish scream filled the air. Evan’s heart almost stopped. There couldn’t be such things as ghosts … Could there? Again the fiendish laughter pealed. Evan wanted to run, but his legs had turned to mush.
JB started to laugh as Milo came into the hall chortling, and Evan could have kicked himself for falling for their trick. But just then an eerie, cooing sound echoed through the house. JB and Evan looked at each other.
“What’s that?” Milo gasped. “That doesn’t sound human …”
“Let’s get out of here!” JB yelled.
The two boys flew out of the house. Evan started to follow, but then slowed on the rickety porch steps as the strange cooing noise began again. It didn’t sound evil or even scary — it sounded sad.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he thought stayed with Evan all the way home, and it was his last thought before he fell asleep. Next morning at breakfast, Mr. Forrester mentioned that he was going to stop by County Hospital to see how their neighbor was.
“That’s a good idea. It’s too bad about Mr. Grady,” his mother said. “I hear that he used to be a famous scientist before he retired due to worsening eyesight. He’s written many books about natural history.”
Maybe he’d read one of them! Impulsively, Evan asked, “Can I come with you, Dad?”
Somehow, he managed to stay out of JB’s way during the school day, and later he and his father drove to County Hospital. He’d hoped to ask Mr. Grady about the eerie cooing noises, but when he saw the old man, he realized that Mr. Grady would have a hard time talking. The old man’s jaw was bruised and discolored, and his right arm was in a cast.
Mr. Grady was asleep when they looked in. Saying that they should come another time, Mr. Forrester left the room. Before Evan could follow, the old man opened his eyes and, seeing Evan, beckoned him closer. When he approached, Mr. Grady whispered something that sounded like, “Save Barney!”
Those strange cooing noises, Evan thought.
“Is Barney inside your house, sir?” he asked. Mr. Grady nodded, then winced in pain. “Do you want me to go inside your house and … and save Barney?” Evan persisted. Another nod. Then the old man’s eyes closed again.
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen his father dropped him off at home, Evan wasn’t sure what to do. He didn’t want to go into that dark, silent house. He could wait and discuss this with his parents, but his mother was running an errand, Mr. Forrester was back at work and Mr. Grady was counting on him.
Voices behind him made him whip around. JB and Milo were walking down the street, pointing at him and grinning. He couldn’t back out now, not in front of them! Evan found the key in the big flowerpot by the door and let himself in.
The light switch in the hall wouldn’t work. Into the dark wafted that eerie, cooing sound. Evan’s stomach lurched, but he followed the sounds to a big, dusty room. There in a corner stood a large cage. Two round, glowing eyes were staring at him from the cage.
Evan began to laugh with relief. The eyes belonged to a small capuchin monkey.
“Hi, Barney,” he said. “Want to come home with me?”
Holding Barney’s cage, Evan left the Grady house. He saw that Milo and JB were still there, staring at him with their mouths half open. Ignoring them, Evan took the monkey home.
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen they learned what had happened, Evan’s parents were happy to help.
“One thing’s for sure,” Mr. Forrester said as they all watched Barney happily chewing on a corn cob, “we need to get some of the neighbors together and fix up those front steps. They’re not safe.”
Evan visited Mr. Grady in the hospital the next day and told him that Barney was fine.
“My dad says that we’ll keep him until you’re well enough to take him home with you. My school isn’t far, so I’m going to walk down here each day and give you a progress report. My dad will pick me up.”
Mr. Grady was alert and able to talk today.
“I appreciate it,” he said. “I’ve been thinking. I’m going to make a call to the Wildlife Refuge Center in Kendalia. They’ll take Barney. I’m no longer able to care for him properly.” He looked sad, and Evan understood. It was hard to say goodbye to old friends.
“I understand you’ve made a move yourself recently,” Mr. Grady went on. “Your father told me when he stopped in this morning. He said that you’re something of a natural history buff yourself, aren’t you?”
When Evan nodded, Mr. Grady went on. “I was your age when the ‘bug’ caught me.”
He began to talk about how he had sat by a pond for hours observing salamanders, and Evan burst out that he’d done that, too! When Mr. Forrester came to pick Evan up, they were deep in talk.
“You’ll come tomorrow?” Mr. Grady asked as the Forresters were leaving, and Evan nodded a glad “Yes.”
[dropcap]E[/dropcap]van and Mr. Grady’s visits continued. Evan wasn’t exactly sure why, but JB and Milo now left him alone. They hardly mattered, though, because he was busy. He was bursting with ideas he needed to discuss with his new friend, one of them being the naturalist club he was planning to start at school.
One afternoon, Mr. Grady announced that he was being discharged from the hospital.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “I have several projects that I started before I retired. I never got around to finishing them because my eyesight was getting worse, and I didn’t have an assistant to help me.” He paused. “But if you’re interested, perhaps you could come over to the house after you finish your homework. Your dad thinks it’s a good idea, and the housekeeper I’ve just hired will give us snacks and the energy to work hard.” He paused. “What do you think? Partners?”
Evan’s whole face lit up with a smile. He couldn’t find the right words to say, but that didn’t matter. Mr. Grady was holding out a hand, and Evan shook it joyfully.