When you’re one of the smaller kids in class and lifting anything bigger than a bagel is an effort, guys like Slug come after you.
Actually, Slug comes after a lot of kids, but it’s my neck I’m worried about. He’s been forcing me to pay life insurance — five bucks a week or he’ll beat the crap out of me. We’re into our seventh month, and coming up with the money is stressing me out big time.
I started by going through my savings, but they ran out pretty quick, so now I do odd jobs. It hasn’t been easy. Mrs. Cleary, down the block, once gave me a whole two bucks for washing and polishing her car. I couldn’t believe it. My arms ached so much I walked like a gorilla for a week. So far, I’ve managed to pay on time. But
after each payment, I barely have enough money left for a doughnut … a day-old doughnut.
Uh-oh! Here he comes. Excuse me while jump into this rosebush.
Usually I just hand over the five bucks and thank Slug for not hurting me. But this week I’m short by fifty cents. Why don’t I just hand over the $4.50 and promise to cough up the rest tomorrow?
Simple. When you’re short, even by a nickel, Slug slugs you. Hard. And if you completely miss a payment — you’re dead meat.
There’ve been lots of times I’ve wanted to tell my dad what was going on, but he has enough problems. Since Mom died — three years ago — he hasn’t been able to concentrate on business. We live over a shop that belonged to my grandfather. It was once a funeral parlor, but Grandpa said there were way too many spooky sounds during the night, so he turned it into a kind of weird museum called Oddities. It displays “unusual” items — shrunken heads, petrified hands, mannequins made completely out of marshmallows. Sort of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, only not as interesting.
It hadn’t been doing very well for a long time, so finally Dad just closed it down. Since then he’s been sitting around the house watching TV.
But last week he heard about this airport auction where they sell off all kinds of things that people forget when they get off the plane — leather jackets, computers, skis, you name it.
How could anybody forget their skis? Wouldn’t you notice when you were swooshing down some mountain?
Anyway, I was hoping Dad would come home with something I’d like. Maybe some videos or a suitcase full of money. Instead, he showed up with a big wooden crate that he put in the basement under the museum. So what was in the crate?
A coffin. You heard me right — a coffin.
And inside the coffin was an ancient Greek corpse. I’m not kidding. Dad said it must have been part of a traveling exhibit and somehow got left behind. Why nobody claimed it doesn’t make sense. But, hey, sitting in a thorny rosebush didn’t make sense either, but here I was, with sharp thorns about to dig into my eyeballs, on the last Saturday of summer holidays.
What was taking Slug so long? I knew he was a slow walker — anybody his size would be — but this was too slow even for him. With the sun beating down on my head, I knew I couldn’t sit there all day, so I finally worked up the nerve to back out of the bush. I moved really carefully, but my hair must have caught on some humongous thorn because all of a sudden a chunk of it got ripped right out of my skull.
Screaming isn’t something you can always control. At least I couldn’t. And guess what? Slug just happened to be walking by at that exact moment. Now, any normal person would at least ask why I was sitting in the middle of a rosebush, but no.
“Where’s my money, squirt?” is all he said.
I handed over the $4.50, got punched and went home.
I started this school year the same way I started every year, with one goal — to get Rosalie DiNardo to like me. She’s the smartest and, to me anyway, the prettiest girl in the class. I was getting nowhere, as usual, so by October I decided to volunteer at the same place she does, a seniors’ home called Forest View.
“Just make yourself a name tag,” the lady at the desk said.
My first job was to push an old man named Mr. Lucas around the grounds in his wheelchair. It was a nice day and he was kind of funny and easy to talk to. Next I pushed Mr. Khan, then Mr. Morris and finally Mrs. Lee, who was the size of a hippo. I kept looking around for Rosalie, hoping she’d see me and think I was some kind of hero or something. She was nowhere in sight.
With the corpse in the basement, Dad’s mind got to working overtime. He came up with the bright idea of renovating the museum and having a grand reopening. It was almost Halloween, so it seemed the perfect time to do it. He talked about the new spooky exhibits he was going to add, and he figured people would pay good money to see a genuine, zillion-year-old corpse.
I had to agree with him. It was all I could do not to bring my cousin Freddie over for a look, but I promised Dad I wouldn’t and I never break a promise.
It takes a lot of work to renovate something as big as Oddities. Since Dad couldn’t afford to hire help, I did what I could, and my Uncle Charlie, Freddie’s dad, came by every night after work.
As the days passed, I started noticing a change. Dad was getting, I don’t know, happier, I guess. Uncle Charlie noticed, too. Another change was that Dad started going to the library and bringing home tons of books on Greek myths and legends. He wanted to be able to talk to visitors about the corpse like an expert.
Dad’s favorite saying is “Knowledge is power,” so he studied pretty hard. Besides, he knew this was his last chance. If people didn’t start coming back to Oddities, he’d have to shut down for good.
One day, I raced home from school, trying to outrun a storm. Made it just in time. The first crack of thunder hit as I was going up the stairs to our apartment. Dad was sitting at the kitchen table, his nose in a book.
“Listen to this, Alex,” he said, excitement in his voice. “In ancient Greece it was believed that the souls of the newly dead went to live in the Underworld. To get there, souls were ferried across the River Styx by a boatman named Charon. But he would ferry only those souls that were buried with a gold coin in their mouth.”
My eyebrows went up. This was more interesting than The Three Stooges reruns, which is what I usually watch when I get home. I grabbed a Pop-Tart and pulled up a chair.
“The gold coin was payment for safe passage. Without it, Charon would refuse his services and the dead would remain stranded on the banks of the river … forever denied their eternal rest. They became known as ‘the lost souls.’”
Dad took off his glasses and I saw a light in his eyes that I hadn’t seen in a long time. “I think we’ve got a winner here, son.” He smiled at me.
I handed him half my Pop-Tart.
As we sat there, a thought hit me. “Dad? If what the book says is true, there should be a gold coin in the corpse’s mouth.”
“There should be. I doubt a soul could take the actual coin itself, but you never know.”
He slipped on his glasses and flipped back a few pages. “It says here …‘On rare occasions, enemies would not allow family members to put the gold coin in the corpse’s mouth, as punishment for something the dead person had done.’”
Dad leaned back on his chair. “I’d hate to think our corpse’s soul was still stranded at the river.”
“Can we check?”
Dad put the book down. “Let’s go.”
We went downstairs into Oddities. White canvas sheets covered almost everything, paint cans were all over the floor, and shelves had been taken down and stacked in the corner.
A huge flash of lightning lit up the room. The clap of thunder that followed was so loud the room shook and some plaster fell. Dad pulled me back just as it crashed to the floor.
“That was close,” he said. “Be careful.”
We made our way to the basement door. Dad reached out and flicked on the switch, but as soon as the light came on, we heard a pop and the bulb went out. “That’s odd,” he said. “I put in a new bulb just last week.”
The light from the back porch was bright enough to guide our way down, but as we walked through the basement, it got dimmer and dimmer. Dad stopped and lifted a flashlight from a shelf near the furnace. The glow made the room look creepy.
When we got to the crate, Dad and I lifted the lid. Then we slowly opened the coffin and looked at our corpse. He seemed even uglier in this light, with his stretched gray skin and sunken eyes. A shiver ran down my back. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“The ancient Greeks believed that a person’s soul left the body through the mouth,” said Dad. “So it was always left open.”
“That way it could grab the coin on its way out, right?”
Dad smiled, leaned over and shone the light on the corpse’s face. “The mouth isn’t open,” he said, sounding disappointed. Then he looked up at me. “Poor thing must have had enemies.”
I felt sorry for our corpse. Here he was, ready to help Dad’s business, and all these centuries his soul’s been waiting by the river.
“Can’t we do something?”
“Like buy a gold coin and put it in his mouth … or on his mouth.”
Excerpted from Walking With The Dead by L.M.Falcone. Copyright © 2005 by L.M.Falcone. Excerpted by permission of Kids Can Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.