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The first ring rainbow, p.1
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       The First Ring Rainbow, p.1

           Brian Bakos
 
1 2 3 4
The First Ring Rainbow
THE FIRST RING RAINBOW

  Book 2, Time Before Color TV series

  by Brian Bakos

  Copyright 2012 Brian Bakos / revised 09-2016

  Table of Contents

  Prelude: What Happened Before

  One: Atomic Summer

  Two: Tension on the Home Front

  Three: Dreadful Visit

  Four: Mysteries Unraveled

  Next Book in the Series

  Brian’s Other Books

  Prelude: What Happened Before

  How Raspberry Jam Got Invented gives some interesting background information that can help you to enjoy this story more. Click the link to obtain a copy.

  If you’d rather just dive in and read, that’s okay, too.

  One: Atomic Summer

  Prolog

  Have you ever seen a ring rainbow? Not the usual sort with its ends on the ground, but a perfect circle in the sky. The first one in South Allendale appeared during the Atomic Summer when all sorts of bad things seemed likely to happen.

  1: Mystery in the Sky

  Something weird flashes high above me as I float on my back beneath the hot sky. It spins into view for a few seconds, then vanishes, then comes back again. I grab the pool ladder and stand up.

  “What’s that, Melissa?” I say.

  Melissa pauses half way in her latest lap across the pool.

  “Where?” she says.

  “There.”

  I point straight up, shading my eyes against the blinding sun.

  “It’s a swirl ... like a giant bathtub drain funnel,” I say. “Don’t you see it?”

  Melissa also shades her eyes and looks skyward.

  “No, I don’t, Amanda,” she says. “How long have you had this ‘seeing things’ problem?”

  Of course, it’s gone now, but that was a rude thing for Melissa to say! I feel like telling her to get the heck out of my pool.

  Yeah, she’d probably like that – then she can go back to her fancy, air-conditioned house and feel superior all by herself.

  “There was something up there,” I say, “but it’s gone now.”

  “Uh huh,” Melissa says in that back-handed dig way she has.

  I grit my teeth. Melissa is really getting to me today. Wouldn’t this be a good time to start the fight?

  No ... better to wait. The others haven’t arrived yet.

  “I’m hotter now than when I got in,” Melissa gripes. “Put in some fresh water, Amanda.”

  I look doubtfully toward the garden hose lying curled up by the house.

  “Don’t you know there’s a water emergency on?” I say. “The police are ticketing anybody they see filling swimming pools or watering lawns.”

  “There aren’t any cops around now, are there?” Melissa says.

  “Well ... no,” I say.

  “Don’t be such a chicken, then.”

  Maybe I can get away with it. I’m plenty uncomfortable in the stale water myself. Besides, I’m no chicken! I start climbing out, but then I see the ‘Eye in the Fence’ and change my mind pretty quick.

  “No way.” I slip back down the ladder. “If we get a ticket, I’ll be grounded all summer.”

  “All right!” Melissa says.

  She swims away, all huffy like. Well, that’s just too bad! She doesn’t have a nut-ball neighbor like Mrs. Kraft to worry about.

  I can see a slice of Mrs. Kraft’s eyeball staring through a crack in the high wooden fence. She’ll call the police the moment I turn on the hose, I know. She’s the type who minds everybody else’s business because her own isn’t worth much.

  I wave at the fence.

  “Hello, Mrs. Kraft!” I call.

  The eye disappears.

  I float on my back again, watching the fierce, cloudless sky. Such a wide open space! I wish I could fly up to where it’s cool, into absolute freedom.

  Dad used to be a jet fighter pilot; he knows what the world is like up there. When I told him that I’d like to fly jets, though, he just smiled. Maybe someday girls could do that, he said, but not now. Perhaps I can marry a jet pilot someday, like Mom did.

  A warm current of water moving through the electric filter pushes me towards the middle of the pool.

  “Still looking for something up there?” Melissa says. “It’s probably just the Russians getting ready to drop an atomic bomb.”

  Now I am offended. The Russians are no laughing matter! My whole life we’ve been fighting them and other Communists. First that terrible war in Korea, and now the Cold War when atomic bombs could explode any second.

  I start climbing up the ladder again.

  “Calm down, Amanda,” Melissa says. “I was just kidding. Look, the sky is perfectly clear.”

  So it is, but my mood is cloudy. Melissa wouldn’t be joking if her dad had nearly got killed, like mine had. Some lousy Communist blasted his fighter plane out of the perfectly clear sky in Korea one day.

  I was too young to know what was happening. Dad was gone so much that I scarcely remembered him. I do remember Mom getting quieter and gloomier, and that she was crabby almost all the time.

  Then one day Dad just appeared wearing his blue uniform. He had a scar on his face but seemed otherwise unhurt. I was playing on the floor when he came into our house, and ...

  A horrid mechanical voice interrupts my memories:

  “Hold it right there, Natasha!” it commands.

  2: Commie Patrol

  I whip my head around, and a hard squirt of water strikes my face, blinding me. I brush the water out of my eyes and see two weird creatures standing on the lawn. They have loudspeakers on their heads and antennas sticking up. They started flashing and beeping.

  “Ahhh!”

  I tumble back into the pool.

  Ghastly electronic laughter echoes in the yard.

  “Hey, Amanda,” an amplified voice says, “don’t you recognize us?”

  I swallow my heart back down and squint over the pool wall. Quentin and Tommy!

  “What are you up to now?” I yell.

  They walk closer, laughing. They are in bathing suits, and each wears a plastic helmet type gizmo with a loudspeaker on top. Quentin speaks into the microphone attached to his helmet.

  “We’re on Commie patrol,” he says in his electronic voice. “We’re looking for Russian spies.”

  “Take those stupid things off!” I say.

  Tommy unbuckles his helmet and pulls it off.

  “Relax, Amanda,” he says. “We didn’t mean to scare you.”

  “We’re just making sure that everybody is a loyal American,” Quentin says. “We don’t want any low down Reds in the neighborhood.”

  “Of course I’m a loyal American,” I shoot back. “Who says I’m not?”

  “We’re only checking,” Quentin says.

  “Well, I’m no low down Red!” I’m getting very angry now. “I’m as patriotic as anybody, including you.”

  “Sorry, Amanda,” Tommy says with a sheepish grin.

  He and Quentin begin firing squirt guns at each other, running around my yard like a couple of idiots.

  “Look at them,” Melissa says, “I’m so impressed. Aren’t you, Amanda?”

  “Yeah,” I say.

  “What gives?” Melissa shouts at the boys. “The last I heard, you were fighting Nazis!”

  “We wiped them out already,” Tommy says. “We’re after Commies now.”

  “Yeah,” Quentin says, “we have to keep up to date as far as enemies are concerned.”

  Tommy runs over with his squirt gun.

  “See, Amanda, it’s the ‘Atomic Blaster’ gun, guaranteed to vaporize all Communist spies and space invaders.”

  The thing is long and pointy. S
un bouncing off its silvery plastic barrel hurts my eyes. The handle is bright red and has an atomic mushroom cloud stamped on it.

  “How nice,” I say.

  “Want to take a shot at me, Amanda?” Tommy says.

  “No thanks. Some other time, maybe.”

  Quentin has already ditched his helmet and is climbing into the pool. Tommy follows. Their smiles disappear pretty quick.

  “Whew!” Quentin says, “I feel like a hot dog waiting to get boiled.”

  “Thanks,” I say.

  Tommy tries to smooth things over.

  “Your pool is very nice, Amanda,” he says, “even if the water is, uh, rather hot.”

  That makes me feel a lot better.

  “What are those helmet things?” Melissa asks.

  “They’re SAC Hats,” Tommy says.

  “Sack hats?” Melissa says. “Yeah, you two would look better with bags over your heads.”

  “No, not sack,” Quentin says, “S-A-C. It stands for Strategic Air Command. You know, the big atomic bombers – the B-52’s and stuff.”

  “Oh, I get it,” Melissa says. “You’re planning to blow up the world now.”

  “We’ve started the Atomic Kids club,” Quentin says. “We’d ask you to join, but girls aren’t allowed.”

  “Gee, that’s too bad,” Melissa says.

  Tommy holds up a finger.

  “Unless your family has a nuclear fallout shelter in your basement,” he says. “Then you could be an honorary member.”

  “If we can hold meetings in your fallout shelter, that is,” Quentin adds.

  “You mean, I get to be a second class member in my own house?” Melissa asks.

  “I wouldn’t put it like that – exactly,” Tommy says.

  “It’s just the way things are,” Quentin says. “Boys rule the world, everybody knows that.”

  All this talk of Communists, atomic bombs, and Russian spies is creeping me out badly. I move across the pool from my friends, wishing that a whole ocean separated us.

  What would the ‘Atomic Kids’ say if they found out that I know some genuine Russian Communists? Right in my own family, too – Mom’s parents, Vladimir and Galina. My Grandma and Grandpa Lenin.

  3: Grandma and Grandpa Lenin

  I’ve nicknamed them ‘Grandma and Grandpa Lenin’ because they have a picture of the original top Communist, a guy named Lenin, hanging in their living room.

  There is no way I can allow my friends to find out about them! The embarrassment alone would be fatal – not to mention that they are the closest thing to real Commie spies the Atomic Kids are ever likely to meet.

  I see my grandparents only a couple of times a year, always at their dark, spooky house. It’s like visiting a horror movie, a secret part of my life, an alternate reality.

  So why are they coming here?

  They are supposed to arrive tonight and stay three whole days. The thought makes me feel ice cold, even in the warm water.

  “What’s the matter, Amanda?” Tommy asks. “You look sick.”

  I’ve invented a desperate plan to keep my grandparents a secret – invite my friends to a pool party and then start a big fight. Everybody will be angry and not talking to me. Nobody would come near my house. Then, after the terrible visit is over, I’ll try to make up with my friends.

  “I’m okay, Tommy,” I say. “It’s just the heat getting to me a little.”

  I dive under the water.

  Grandma and Grandpa escaped from Russia about thirty years ago because they were the wrong brand of communist. Another Red named Stalin was in power then, and he was killing anybody who disagreed with him. First they fled to Mexico, then to the U.S. where Mom was born.

  Their family life must have been awful. Weird people coming over late nights to talk about communism and revolutions, kids afraid to visit. Mom couldn’t wait to get away. She eloped with Dad when she was still in high school.

  I bob back to the surface.

  Now or never, Amanda! I tell myself.

  I start creeping towards Melissa. My plan is to shout something really nasty and shove her head under water. The fight will be on!

  Melissa is pretty strong and ordinarily I’d have a very hard time of it, but Quentin and Tommy will break things up quickly. Then Melissa will stomp away home vowing to never speak to me again.

  Later, I can break the Atomic Kids’ squirt guns or something. That will tick them off pretty good, and they won’t be coming around again for quite a while.

  Well, here goes.

  I reach my hands out toward Melissa.

  “Look,” Tommy cries. “In the sky!”

  I freeze in my tracks. We all jerk our faces upward.

  “There it is again!” I gasp.

  The great swirling is back, only much lower this time. We all gape, amazed. Even Melissa has nothing to say. The air funnel stretches out thin, pointing toward the forest.

  “It’s coming down by Secret Pond!” Tommy says.

  The point of the little tornado snakes right into the trees tops, tossing leaves around. Then the funnel disappears with a quiet pop! The whole thing takes only a few seconds.

  We all look at each other, wide eyed.

  “Let’s check this out,” Quentin says. “Come on Tommy, we’re gonna need more fire power than these squirt guns!”

  The boys climb out of the pool and charge off toward their houses.

  “Wait for us,” Tommy calls over his shoulder. “We’ll be right back.”

  4: Journey into Weirdness

  Melissa and I climb out of the pool and grab our towels. The air is so hot and dry that my swimsuit scarcely feels wet. The unshaded area of our patio blazes in the sun. The cement looks hot enough to fry eggs, but wouldn’t that be an awful breakfast?

  “What do you think that was?” Melissa whispers.

  “Beats me,” I say, “probably just the Russians with an atomic bomb.”

  I try to sound casual, but I’m actually kind of scared. Melissa sounds worried, too. Good. At least she is off her high horse now. Her dad is this big shot lawyer with plenty of money, and she never lets you forget that.

  So why do I keep her as a friend? A good question, but there isn’t time to think about it now. I look over the back fence.

  “Tommy’s probably right about Secret Pond,” I say.

  The new state park begins just across the road. Houses were going to be built there, but the only thing that got finished was a sidewalk. The “sidewalk to nowhere,” I call it.

  Secret Pond is a weedy, mosquito-ish little place we discovered in the woods. We aren’t supposed to go in there, but –

  Quentin and Tommy return, slingshots in hand. They wear regular clothes now – and their S.A.C. hats, of course. Quentin also has a red plastic camera slung around his neck. Very stylish.

  “Let’s go,” Quentin says.

  He holds up the camera and the slingshot.

  “First we’ll get photographic evidence,” he says, “then we’ll get as rough as we need to.”

  “Yeah.” Tommy brandishes an empty jar. “And we can catch bloodsuckers while we’re out there, too.”

  Bloodsuckers? That sounds almost as wonderful as my grandparents’ visit. Every minute brings that terrible event closer, and I haven’t even started the fight yet!

  The boys leave through the back gate. They walk carefully, crouching with weapons at the ready. They look as if they’re tracking a tiger – like those hunters on the Jungle Jerry TV show. Quentin’s camera dangles from his neck like an oversized piece of jewelry.

  I glance at Melissa, hoping that she will refuse to go; that way I’ll have an excuse to stay behind, too. She, no doubt, is hoping to see the same thing from me, but neither of us wants to be the first to back down.

  So, we start walking.

  Dust chokes the air as we cross the gravel road, stinging my eyes and making my nose itch. Some big horseflies take to the air, but then decide it’s too much effor
t and settle back down again. Quentin and Tommy move into the woods. Rain hasn’t fallen for weeks, and the dry underbrush crunches as they force their way through.

  Melissa and I stop on the Sidewalk to Nowhere, unwilling to enter the forest. Heat from the cement pushes through the thin soles of my tennies. I have the feeling that we are about to do something really awesome. Melissa seems to feel this, too, or maybe she’s just scared. Finally, we plunge into the woods together.

  The boys are waiting for us. They spin around, slingshots ready for action.

  “What took you so long?” Quentin demands.

  “Don’t worry about us,” Melissa says, “and watch where you’re aiming that thing!”

  Quentin lowers his slingshot. He looks nervous; much of his usual confidence has evaporated into the dry air. He removes the camera from around his neck.

  “Here, Amanda,” he says, “this is getting in my way. Can you carry it?”

  “Sure.”

  I sling the thing over my shoulder like a little purse.

  We trudge along single file, with Quentin leading. We’ve walked this path many times before, and we know it well. We should have reached Secret Pond in ten minutes or so, but our progress is very slow for some reason. It’s as if we’re wading through deep water. My legs become very tired. Every step increases my anxiety.

  What else is going to happen next? Grandma and Grandpa Lenin aren’t even here yet, and already the day seems like a cheap horror movie. Is this whole mystery related to them somehow? Walking along the edge of weirdness in my flimsy tennies, I feel ready to believe anything.

  And I’m mad at myself, too. It was Quentin’s big idea to come in here, and I just followed along. Why are we girls such jellyfish? All a good-looking boy has to do is say he wants something, and we come along whether we like it or not.

  Melissa steps on a large stick, breaking it.

  “Shhh!” Quentin hisses. “You’re ruining the element of surprise.”

  “To heck with the element of surprise!” Melissa says.

  “Everybody quiet, please,” Tommy says. “We’re almost there.”

  We bunch together. The boys hold their weapons at the ready and try to look brave, but they are as scared as me and Melissa now.

  We creep along the last few yards to Secret Pond and break from the trees. Something incredible appears before us.

  “Ah!” Melissa and I gasp together.

  Quentin jerks back, practically falling over. Tommy drops his bloodsucker jar. It smashes on a rock.

  5: A Shocking Discovery

  A huge creature lies flopped on its belly along the weedy pond bank. Its head is thrust under the water, and it drinks with great, noisy slurps.

  SHH-LIP! SHH-LOP!

  If the thing had been furry, I’d say it was a bear. But its skin is shiny and bright colored. Long, crooked legs sprawl behind it with webbed feet on the ends.

  It’s a giant frog!

  How amazing, I tell myself, I should be running home screaming my head off about now.

  But I can’t. With each burbly slurp, power seems to radiate from the frog. It holds us in place, hypnotizing us almost. Once the first shock has passed, I’m not even scared.

  We all just watch, dumbfounded, as the creature sucks up the last bit of water. Time seems to stand still.

  Fish flop about the dry pond bottom. The frog shoots out its long tongue and snaps them up, one after another.

  Quentin finally breaks the spell.

  “Hold it right there, Ivan!” he bellows through his loudspeaker helmet. “We’ve got you covered!”

  The frog creature jerks its head up. Its buggy eyes become even buggier.

  “Surrender or die!” Tommy says in his electronic voice.

  The boys draw their slingshots and advance, helmets beeping. The frog cringes back onto its hind legs and holds up its hands, or whatever it is that frogs have. Its whole body trembles like a huge blob of jelly.

  “Put those away!” I say. “The poor thing’s terrified. And shut off those beepers.”

  Tommy and Quentin lower their slingshots but kept the stones ready to fly at a second’s notice. The beeping stops.

  The frog blinks his huge, frightened eyes. We walk cautiously toward it until we are only a few feet away.

  “Hey,” Melissa says, “you drank up our pond!”

  The creature wrings its hands and bobs its head with awkward little jerks. Tears fill its eyes.

  “Please don’t be angry,” it says in a quivering voice. “I didn’t want to do it. This pond could have been a home for me, but now I have no place to live!”

  We all shrink back, amazed. The creature’s voice sounds like a regular man’s – not at all croaky, like you’d expect from a frog. It’s actually kind of mellow, however weird that might sound.

  “How did he learn to talk?” Quentin gasps.

  “Maybe he’s a demon,” Tommy says. “They can do all kinds of stuff, like in this movie I saw – they can read your mind and everything.”

  “He doesn’t look evil,” I say.

  There is definite magic about him, though. He is ugly-beautiful – bright like a rainbow with the colors constantly shifting, or like gasoline spilled in the water.

  Suddenly the frog begins to cry with great racking sobs.

  “Let’s go home,” Melissa says. “This whole thing is creeping me out.”

  “We can’t just leave him here,” I say. “He’ll shrivel up without water.”

  “Well, maybe he shouldn’t have drunk the pond, then,” Melissa says.

  “Pull yourself together, Mr. Frog,” Quentin says.

  “I-I’ll try,” the frog says.

  He is still sniffling, but his head is cocked, as if he’s trying to overhear us.

  “Let’s take him back with us,” Tommy says.

  “Cool!” Quentin says. “He can be our prisoner.”

  Melissa wrinkles her nose.

  “Where would we keep him?” she says. “I sure don’t want some big slimy thing at my place.”

  All eyes turn toward me.

  Before I can say anything, Quentin announces: “Mr. Frog, you can stay with Amanda until the pond fills up again. She has a swimming pool.”

  The frog immediately stops crying and says matter-of-factly, “Okay, that sounds good.”

  Such friends I’ve got!

  Two: Tension on the Home Front

  6: Back Home

  “Let’s get going, then,” Melissa says.

  “I am sorry, my lady,” the frog replies, “but I cannot move very well on my own. I require assistance.”

  His voice is very sweet, as if it comes from a musical instrument instead of a frog’s throat. It has a strange, soothing power – for me, anyway. I don’t know how soothed Melissa is feeling.

  “Well, there are two strong boys here,” she says. “What are we waiting for?”

  Quentin and Tommy position themselves doubtfully on either side of the great frog.

  “How are we going to do this?” Tommy asks.

  “Beats me,” Quentin says. “I thought you might know.”

  The frog reaches up his arm thingies. Tommy and Quentin each grab one, and the creature stands up slowly on his back legs.

  “Hey Amanda,” Quentin grunts, “can you take our picture?”

  I shoot two pictures. Even bent over like he is, the frog towers over the boys. Then I take Quentin’s place, and he snaps a couple more photos.

  The creature feels squishy and cold under my hands. He looks down towards me, and I could swear that a smile crosses his froggish mouth. He shifts his weight so that I’m not supporting him so much. He leans more on Tommy now, who groans in protest.

  I know that I should stop what’s happening, I should call the cops or something, but for some reason I can’t. The poor thing seems so – helpless.

  Melissa winds her wrist watch impatiently, the fancy designer one she likes to brag about.

  “If it isn’t
too much trouble,” she says, “do you suppose we could get moving?”

  Quentin hands me the camera and resumes his position supporting the frog. We start walking.

  With great effort, the frog moves one of his back feet, swinging it forward in a long step. The boys scramble to keep up. Finally, the great frog foot hits the ground Ka-Flop! Then the whole thing repeats itself. Progress is slow.

  “Owie, owie! Broken glass!” The frog cries when we come to the bloodsucker jar.

  “Oh, please,” Melissa says.

  She kicks the glass out of the way.

  “There, is that all right?” she says. “Or would you like me to roll out a red carpet?”

  We galumph slowly along. Quentin and Tommy have their hands full, so I join the effort. Melissa prefers to supervise.

  “I’m not touching that disgusting thing!” she says.

  Finally, after several long rest breaks, we get back to where we first entered the forest. With a tremendous sigh of relief, we set the frog down. The boys stomp the underbrush to open a path out to the road. I step alone onto the Sidewalk to Nowhere.

  It is now late afternoon, dinner time almost, and the heat is starting to leave the dry air. I look around the deserted road. Fortunately, the backyards down from us are empty. With any luck, we just might be able to smuggle the frog into my yard unnoticed.

  But then a terrible thought strikes me – Mrs. Kraft! I poke my head back into the woods.

  “Don’t bring him out yet,” I say. “I’ve got to divert Mrs. Kraft. She could be staring through her fence right now.”

  “Check,” Quentin says.

  “Don’t come out until you see the gate close behind me,” I say.

  I dash across the road to Mrs. Kraft’s place. Her whole backyard is surrounded by a high wooden fence, with only a tiny gate facing the road. A sign hanging on it reads:

  No Trespassing! Have a Nice Day.

  I stop by the gate and listen.

  Mrs. Kraft is playing the radio in her backyard again. Nothing cool like Elvis Presley – just boring, old-fogy music with violins and stuff. I push on the gate. It creaks slowly open.

  7: More Weirdness

  The yard is beautiful, much different from what I expected. Two little trees shade a fine lawn which is as neat as a golf course putting green. Thick bunches of flowers grow along the fences. Mrs. Kraft stands beside a glorious heap of pansies, watering them with her garden hose and humming along to the radio.

  I can’t believe my luck. If the police only knew about this! I raise the camera to my eye and creep forward.

  “Smile,” I say.

  “Oh!”

  Mrs. Kraft spins around, a shocked look on her face. The garden hose jerks up, nearly spraying me. I click the shutter.

  Every imaginable expression shoots across Mrs. Kraft’s face. First she looks terrified, then angry, then she looks like she wants to strangle me with the garden hose. Finally, a sly look comes into her eyes. She shuts off the water.

  “You really scared me, Samantha,” she says.

  “Uh, I’m Amanda,” I say, “not Samantha.”

  “Yes, yes, of course,” Mrs. Kraft says. “Who told you that you could come back here?”

  “Well, nobody,” I say. “But it’s so hot out there, and I heard your nice music. I just thought I’d drop by.”

  “How nice,” Mrs. Kraft says using the same tone I would if I’d just been told I needed a penicillin shot.

  Her shifty eyes fix on the camera.

  “And what a lovely camera you’ve got,” she says. “May I see it?”

  She holds out her bony hand. I shove the camera behind my back.

  “Sorry,” I say. “You see, a friend loaned it to me and he was very strict that nobody else could handle it.”

  “Yes, just so,” says Mrs. Kraft, her fingers wiggling.

  She reminds me of that wicked witch character from the Wizard of Oz. I want to run, but that would spoil everything. Mrs. Kraft fans her face with her hands.

  “It certainly is hot, Samantha,” she says. “How would you like a nice cold Floot beer?”

  Floot beer – what the heck was that?

  “S-sure,” I say.

  Mrs. Kraft puts the hose down and moves towards her house. She glances back just before she enters the side door. An evil little smile is on her lips.

  I run to the gate and stick my head out. Tommy and Quentin have brought the frog half way across the road now. Melissa has swung open our double gate.

  “Hurry up!” I whisper-shout.

  “We’re going as fast as we can,” Quentin says.

  In the low, harsh sunlight, the frog shimmers with rainbow colors – first blue, then red, then something else. My eyes hurt to look at him.

  I dash back to the pansies. A minute later, Mrs. Kraft comes out of the house. She shoves a brown-colored bottle into my hand.

  “Here you are, dear,” she says.

  Cold shoots up my arm from the bottle, freezing me right to the armpit.

  “I’m afraid you’ll have to open it yourself.” She gives me a bottle opener. “I can’t handle a lot of things like I used to. Arthritis, you know.”

  I pop off the cap. White vapor rushes out with a scary, whistling, WOOOO! It goes up my nose, making me sneeze.

  “Refreshing, isn’t it?” says Mrs. Kraft.

  Yeah, like sulfuric acid fumes.

  I look at the bottle label. A thin, evil-looking face grins back at me. Written below it is the name Mr. Floot.

  “Whistle your cares away – FOR GOOD!” Mr. Floot says in a comic book style talk bubble.

  “Uh ... would you like some, Mrs. Kraft?” I say.

  Her eyes widen, and she takes a step back.

  “No thank you, dear,” she says, “I can’t drink things like I used to. Indigestion, you know.”

  “Right ... well.”

  I start moving away, searching for any excuse to get out of this bizarre situation.

  “Thank you very much, Mrs. Kraft,” I say, “but I really have to get going. It’s almost dinner time.”

  A disappointed look comes over her face.

  “Good-bye then, Samantha. I’m so glad we had this nice chat.”

  “Me, too,” I say.

  I’m edging toward the gate; it seems about a mile away. Mrs. Kraft points at the garden hose.

  “There’s no need to mention certain things, is there?” she says. “I mean, with us being friends and all.”

  She seems to loom up to about twice her regular size when she says this.

  “Of course not,” I answer. “Friends never snitch on each other, do they? Even if they see something very weird – or illegal even.”

  “That’s right,” Mrs. says from her towering new height. “Now about that photograph.”

  Thank heaven, I am practically out the gate.

  “I’ll give you the negative,” I say. “You can make copies for all your friends.”

  I shut the gate behind me and throw the bottle with all my strength. It rockets across the road, vapory liquid spraying behind, and explodes on the Sidewalk to Nowhere like a bomb going off.

  I’m against littering, ordinarily, but I just have to get rid of that thing.

  8: Preparations

  When I get to my own yard, Quentin and Tommy are easing the frog onto the grass by the big honeysuckle bushes.

  “Did you take care of old Mrs. Crafty?” Quentin asks.

  “I may have backed her off,” I say, “but I don’t trust her for two seconds.”

  I hang my beach towel on the wooden fence, covering the widest cracks.

  “Lend me your towel, Melissa,” I say.

  “Of course,” Melissa says, “anything for a good cause.”

  I fling Melissa’s towel over the fence, too. Then I turn to my new ‘guest.’

  “Stay there, Mr. Frog,” I say, “at least until dark. Those bushes should hide you from the road, and – ”

  Of cou
rse, the neighbors on the other side of our house have to let their dog out at this precise moment. It runs up to the chain link fence and starts barking furiously.

  “Oh, that rotten little mutt!” I say. “He’ll spoil everything.”

  The frog raises its right arm – leg, whatever – and makes a little gesture. The dog instantly stops barking and runs away whining. This is very creepy, even though I’m not particularly fond of that dog.

  “We need to talk,” I say.

  My friends and I huddle together like a football team.

  “What on earth do you think he is?” I whisper.

  “I think he’s a cousin of the Creature from the Black Lagoon,” Tommy says. “Or maybe he’s a regular frog that got oversized from atomic fallout.”

  “Naw,” Melissa says. “You’ve been watching too many Saturday matinee movies. What do you think, Amanda?”

  “Beats me,” I say. “I’m pretty sure he’s not evil, exactly. He seems almost ... noble somehow.”

  “Right,” Melissa says, “he must be an enchanted prince – like in the fairy tales!”

  She laughs like this is the world’s funniest joke.

  “Well, he might look okay,” Quentin says, “but I think he’s a Russian spy in disguise.”

  “That’s ridiculous,” I say.

  “Oh, yeah?” Quentin says. “Remember the Trojan horse story? The people thought they’d gotten a present, but the wooden horse was full of enemy soldiers.”

  “You might have something there,” Tommy says.

  “He’s like Khrushchev, that Russian dictator guy,” Quentin says. “He’s all smiles one minute, the next he’s pounding his shoe on the table and threatening to bury us!”

  A chill runs up my spine. I glance toward our ‘prisoner.’ He appears harmless enough, sprawled on the grass, flicking up insects with his tongue. Could Quentin be right, though?

  “When he sees his chance, he’ll strike,” Quentin says. “Sabotage, assassinations, anything!”

  “Why didn’t you say this before we brought him here?” I demand.

  “I didn’t think of it til now,” Quentin says. “My brain seemed to be scrambled earlier.”

  Melissa yawns. “This is all well and good, but I’ve got things to do at home.”

  She moves away, breaking up our huddle.

  “Hey!” I say, “Aren’t you gonna help me take care of him? What if he gets hungry?”

  “That’s okay,” the frog says, “I already ate those yummy pond fish.”

  “See?” Melissa says. “Everything will be just fine.”

  She heads for the front gate.

  “So long, Jelly Bag!” she calls back.

  “Farewell, my lady,” the frog says.

  Quentin draws me aside.

  “Call me right away if anything suspicious happens,” he says. “And give me the camera. I’ll develop the film tonight.”

  “You can do that?” I say, handing over the camera.

  “Yeah. I’m thinking of starting a photography club.”

  “What about the Atomic Kids club?” I ask.

  Quentin glances toward the frog, he lowers his voice.

  “I don’t know about that,” he says. “It’s turning out to be a lot scarier than I thought it would.”

  Quentin and Tommy take off, leaving me alone with our strange visitor. I toss an old tarp over his glittering body.

  “Thanks, my lady,” he says in that curious, mellow voice of his.

  “Don’t mention it,” I say.

  I find some nails in the shed and use them to fasten the towels to the fence. This ruins Melissa’s fancy towel, but too bad.

  Then I walk toward our house. Taking a deep breath to steady myself, I open the side door.

 
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