At dinner that night, Mom was very upset. She told Dad the whole story. “The principal called me this afternoon. Max told a teacher to shut up. And he tossed clay all over the art room.”
Dad’s face turned even redder than usual. Steam started to pour from his ears. He gripped his fork and knife in his big, meaty fists. “In trouble again? Why did you do that, Max?”
“Hard to explain,” I muttered.
The dragon tattoo on Dad’s right bicep appeared to lower its fiery head and stare at me. “Why can’t you be more like Colin?” Dad growled. “Is that asking too much? Colin is perfect. Why can’t you be perfect?”
“I don’t know,” I whispered, head down.
Colin kicked me hard under the table. Then, grinning, he pulled out a sheet of paper. “Here is my new honor roll certificate,” he told Dad. “Would you like to get it framed like all the others?”
I was grounded for a week. I didn’t see Nicky or Tara the whole time. I knew they were angry at me. Angry because I’d told them to stay away from my birthday party.
But I didn’t expect them to totally disappear.
A week after the pottery room incident, Quentin came over to practice magic tricks. My party was only a few days away. I wanted to rehearse and rehearse until our act was perfect.
After all, Traci Wayne was coming. I wasn’t allowed to get near her. But this was my big chance to impress her.
“Let me show you a hat trick that everyone loves,” Quentin said. “Do you have a real hat I could use?”
I rubbed my chin, thinking hard. “No. I only have baseball caps,” I said. “Oh, wait. My dad has a really good hat he uses for weddings and funerals and things.”
“Go get it,” Quentin said. “You’ll like this trick.”
I hesitated. “But it’s my dad’s only hat, and it’s very expensive. You have to be very careful.”
“No problem,” Quentin said. “The trick is perfectly safe. I’ve done it a thousand times.”
I went down to my parents’ bedroom closet to borrow Dad’s hat. He and Mom were in the den, watching wrestling on TV. They were both shouting at the screen: “Kill him! Kill! Kill! Break him in two!”
They both love wrestling. But sometimes they get carried away. Last week after a big match, Mom jumped on Dad and started slapping his bald head with both hands. He had to pick her up and carry her into the shower to snap her out of it.
I pulled Dad’s hat down from the top shelf. And I also borrowed one of his neckties. He only has three, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him wear one. I had learned a nifty new necktie trick that I knew Quentin would love.
“Kill! Kill! Ruin him!” My parents’ shouts rang out from the den.
Back in my room, I handed Quentin the hat.
“What’s the trick?” I asked. “Will it be good for the party?”
He nodded. He pulled a few things from his magic kit. He held up two eggs. “I crack these two eggs into the hat,” he said. “Then I pour in this jar of honey. Then I turn the hat right side up, and it’s perfectly dry.”
I gulped. “Are you sure about this?”
“Of course I’m sure,” Quentin said. “It’s an easy trick. Watch.”
He pushed his blond hair off his forehead. Then he cracked the two eggs and let them run into the hat. Then he opened the honey jar and turned it upside down, and the honey slowly oozed into the hat with the egg yolks.
“Say the magic words!” Quentin cried. “Hat be good!” He turned the hat over–and honey and yellow egg yolk came dripping out.
“You–you ruined my dad’s hat!” I wailed.
Quentin squinted at the sticky mess inside the hat. “I don’t get it. That trick always works.”
My heart started leaping in my chest. I shoved the hat under my bed. Later I’d have to figure out a good hiding place for it.
“What’s up with the necktie?” Quentin asked, picking up the tie and pulling it through his fingers.
“Here’s a good trick for the party,” I said. “And this one is totally safe.”
I took the tie from him and picked up a pair of scissors. “See? I make it look like I cut the tie into four pieces. But I don’t really cut it. I cut this piece of cloth instead.”
I pulled the cloth from my magic kit and tucked it under the tie. “Now watch,” I said. “It looks like I’ve cut the tie up. But when I tug on it, it’s all together again.”
“Cool,” Quentin muttered.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I boomed, holding the tie in front of me. “The Amazing Indestructible Necktie!”
I snipped it into four pieces. I balled the pieces up in my hand. And then I gave a hard tug. “Back together again!” I exclaimed.
I’d sliced my dad’s tie into four pieces.
“Oh, wow.” I stared at the pieces of tie in my hand.
Then I pictured my dad, as big as a truck, a bellowing bull when he was angry. When he saw what I’d done to his hat and tie, he’d . . . he’d . . .
I couldn’t even think about it.
Trembling, I shoved the pieces of necktie under my bed next to the hat.
Quentin tried a few easy card tricks. The cards fell from his hands and scattered over the floor.
He tried the trick where he waves his magic wand and it turns into a bouquet of flowers. It didn’t work. The wand broke in two.
He shook his head. “Max, everything is messed up tonight. I can’t figure out why.”
I knew what was happening. Nicky and Tara were messing up our tricks.
I gritted my teeth and balled my hands into fists. I felt so angry, I wanted to scream.
But no way
could I tell Quentin about them.
Nicky and Tara were angry because they couldn’t come to my party. So they were doing their best to mess up our magic act.
We tried a few more easy tricks, and they were ruined too. “It just isn’t our night,” Quentin said. “Maybe we should try again tomorrow night.”
He left, shaking his head, very confused.
As soon as he was out the door, my two ghost friends appeared. “How’s it going, Max?” Tara asked, grinning at me.
how it’s going,” I snapped.
“Did you have a bad night?” Nicky asked, acting innocent.
I realized I was grinding my teeth. I’d never been so angry at them. “You have no right to do that,” I shouted. “You have no right to ruin all our tricks.”
“I’ll bet your tricks will go a lot better if you invite us to your party,” Tara said.
“For sure,” Nicky chimed in. “Invite us to your birthday party, and we’ll be your best friends again.”
“No way!” I cried. “You’re not my best friends. And stop begging me. No way are you coming to my party!”
They both put on these really hurt faces. Tara pulled off her hat, tossed it on the floor, and started stomping on it.
I turned away from them and walked to the window. I took deep breaths, trying to calm down. I didn’t like being angry at them. They were two poor young ghosts, after all. They probably wouldn’t have any more birthdays–because they were dead.
But messing up our magic tricks like that was just plain mean.
I gazed out the window, pressing my forehead against the cool glass. A few stars twinkled dimly in the night sky. I lowered my eyes–and gasped when I saw the boy in black staring up at me. He stood at the side of my yard, leaning against a tree trunk.
I pulled up the window, stuck my head out, and shouted down at him. “Go away! I’m warning you! Go away!”
He took a few steps closer to the house. Light from the kitchen downstairs washed over him, and I saw his face. An old man’s face, lined and wrinkled and sagging.
He cupped his hands around his mouth and called up to me. “Be careful!”
Gripping the windowsill, I stared down at his ancient face, at his pale, sunken eyes. “What do you want?” I screamed. “Why are you doing this?”
“Be careful,” he repeated in a breathy rasp of a voice. “They are going to kill you. The ghosts are going to kill you!”
A chill ran down my back. I stepped away from the window. Shivering, I turned to Nicky and Tara.
“What did he mean?” I asked. “Why did he say that? Why did he say you are going to kill
I saw the shock on Nicky’s and Tara’s faces.
And then they disappeared.