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Message from the Match Girl
 

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Message from the Match Girl


  A Message from the Match Girl

  Investigators of the Unknown

  Janet Taylor Lisle

  Contents

  ONE

  TWO

  THREE

  FOUR

  FIVE

  SIX

  SEVEN

  EIGHT

  NINE

  TEN

  ELEVEN

  TWELVE

  THIRTEEN

  FOURTEEN

  Preview: Angela’s Alien

  A Biography of Janet Taylor Lisle

  ONE

  AT FIRST, WALTER KEW hardly knew he was being haunted. His mother’s voice came so softly, like a thought that might have been his own. He would be walking home from school or slouching on the front steps of his house, and the wind would ruffle his hair like an invisible hand. Then he would hear her.

  Not “Hello, Walter, how are you doing down there on earth?” Or “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you, dear. Are you remembering to brush your teeth?”

  Walter’s mother didn’t talk like other mothers. She had died nine years ago when he was a baby, so her words had to travel across dark oceans of time. When they finally reached Walter, they were as faint and uncertain as ghosts.

  She spoke in tones that Walter sensed more than heard. He would sit perfectly still, head cocked to one side, and her voice would come whispering into his mind. Then it drifted off before he quite caught her meaning, and nothing he did would bring her back again. He was sure of one thing. She wanted to tell him something.

  “How do you know?” Walter’s friend Georgina Rusk asked him. “How do you even know it’s your mother? You can’t remember what her voice sounded like. You were too little when she died to remember anything about her. This voice could be anyone’s, from anywhere. Or maybe it’s no one’s and you’re making it up.” She gave him a narrow glance.

  Walter pulled his baseball cap down low over his eyes. “I know it’s my mother,” he said. “People don’t make mistakes about things like mothers.”

  “Since when?” asked Georgina. “They’re like everyone else.”

  “No they aren’t. You don’t know. You see yours every day. All these years I’ve been trying to get through to mine. I’ve tried spells and dreams and crystal balls. Even when I asked the Ouija board, I was never sure I got her. Now, at last, she’s making contact with me—except there’s some kind of interference on the line.”

  “Interference! What is this, a credit card call?”

  Walter sighed and took off his cap. Georgina’s mind was of the practical, earthbound sort. Unknown things like ghosts were too shadowy for her. As for ghost voices trying to get through—

  “You mean dirt interference?” she asked him, suddenly serious. “From your mother being, you know, buried underground?”

  “Not dirt. Something outside this world.” Walter’s eyes flicked away. They were the palest blue, almost white in certain lights. “Spirit-seeing eyes,” their friend Poco Lambert called them. At school, teachers snapped their fingers under his nose: “Control tower to Walter! Please come in!”

  “It’s an ages-old communication problem,” he informed Georgina now. “I’m not the only one who’s had trouble. Only a few people in history have ever heard what the dead were trying to tell them.”

  “That is certainly okay with me,” Georgina said. “Who needs a lot of ghosts calling up and telling you things? There are enough living people trying to do that already … Nothing against your mother,” she added quickly. “I’m sure she was a very nice person.”

  “But that’s the whole point. She still is!” Walter cried. “My mother’s still out there, and now she wants to come back.”

  TWO

  “WALTER’S MIND ISN’T RIGHT,” Georgina said to Poco as the two walked toward the park on Saturday morning. “I think he’s made up this ghost because he misses his mom. It’s sort of sad. I never know what to say.”

  “Just look interested,” Poco advised. “There might be more to it.”

  She was small and precise, but no one had ever accused her of being earthbound. Poco could detect the unknown at work in a blade of grass, not to mention birds and squirrels, with whom she regularly spoke.

  “Walter has special antennae that pick up invisible signals,” she told Georgina now. “That’s why he acts so strange sometimes. Have you seen how his eyes suddenly lock open and he doesn’t hear when you speak to him?”

  “Everyone’s seen that. What’s going on?”

  “He’s watching out.” Poco raised her own head and gazed at the sky. “He’s checking ahead and looking behind. There are worlds out there that only Walter sees, and they aren’t exactly the safest places. If your parents had died and there was just one old grandmother left to take care of you, you might have had to grow special antennae, too.”

  “Not me,” said Georgina, kicking a stone out of her path. “I’d have bought double locks and a burglar alarm.”

  It was April, but the weather was still cold. Too cold, really, for a visit to the park. The friends would never have thought of going there if Walter had not phoned them the night before.

  “I have something to show you,” he’d said in his cautious way. “In the park … if you want to see it.”

  “Of course we want to see it!” Georgina had bellowed.

  He was the sort of person who never gave orders, who never asked for anything and waited until the cookies were passed before taking one. Mothers loved him. He was so quiet and polite. They couldn’t resist patting his head, cap and all. Georgina’s mother was always asking him for lunch, though he rarely came. Quietly, politely, he’d say he had to go home.

  But children his own age didn’t have time for quietness, and politeness was seen as giving in to the enemy. At school, he was mostly shoved aside. Only those who looked closely could see how he minded.

  “Have you noticed how Walter never talks about his father?” Georgina said to Poco as they walked along. “His mother wasn’t the only one who got killed. Both his parents died in that terrible accident.”

  “What happened anyway? No one ever said.”

  “He’s never told. Lucky his grandparents could take him in. Otherwise Walter might have had to be an orphan.”

  “He is an orphan.” Poco examined the sky again. “That’s what you are when your parents are dead. I guess Walter’s father isn’t the one haunting him. Walter thinks about him. He’s just got to find out what his mother wants first.”

  “How could she want anything? She’s been dead for nine years!”

  “She might have decided to come back and fix a wrong. The dead come back if they feel guilty.”

  “Oh, sure.” Georgina snorted under her breath. But no sooner had she said this than an icy finger of wind slipped down her spine and she jumped and looked about uneasily.

  Poco didn’t notice. She was checking her pockets. In the left one, she felt the package of crackers that she had remembered to bring for the poor cold ducks in the park’s pond. “So they won’t stare at us with their hungry duck eyes,” she’d explained.

  “Only you could feel sorry for ducks!” Georgina had blustered.

  There was also, in her right pocket, a small plastic bag of birdseed, in case someone interesting should happen to flap by. In particular, Poco was on the lookout for a robin she’d met last winter. He hadn’t come around lately and, as they walked, she kept glancing worriedly at the sky.

  “I know you’re watching for that idiot robin,” Georgina said. “I hope you aren’t going to start talking to him again if he shows up. It’s terribly embarrassing to normal people like me.”

  “Georgina! You are so prejudiced.” Poco shook her head.
“This robin is a very intelligent bird. You should never judge a person only by his feathers. And there’s Walter,” she added, cutting off the next protest. “Come on, let’s run.”

  He was standing on a small rise at the far edge of the grassy clearing that formed the park—Andersen Park, as it was named, in honor of the great storyteller Hans Christian Andersen. A hundred years ago a rich family had given this land to the town. Wanting it to be a proper place for children, they had commissioned a series of bronze statues in the shape of characters from Andersen’s most famous tales.

  As Poco and Georgina ran toward Walter, they skirted a large model of the Ugly Duckling, frozen in mid-waddle near the edge of the pond. In a meadow to one side, Thumbelina danced stiffly on a swallow’s back. A sharp-nosed Steadfast Tin Soldier stood at attention near the park gates. In the swings area the Snow Queen surveyed the sandbox through flat, weather-worn eyes.

  Posed motionless above this strange collection, Walter looked almost like a statue himself. He was gazing down at something in his hand. When Poco and Georgina came up, he stuffed it in his pocket.

  “Well?” panted Georgina. “Aren’t you going to say hello?”

  “Hello,” Walter said in an uncertain tone.

  “Aren’t you supposed to show us something?” Georgina demanded. “We didn’t walk all this way to stand around doing nothing!”

  Under his baseball cap, Walter’s pale eyes grew paler. Georgina always scared him a little. He turned toward Poco for help, but she happened to be looking just then at the sky.

  “He’s around here somewhere,” she was muttering. “He told me once he hangs out in the park on Saturdays. He’s a friendly type and doesn’t mind crowds.”

  “Walter!” cried Georgina, who often felt she was the only sensible person in the group. “You’ve got something in your pocket. You’re going to show it to us, right? Is it about your mother?”

  He nodded.

  “I thought so. You found a note she wrote before she died, explaining everything about her and your dad?”

  Walter shook his head sadly.

  “Your mother left you something in her will, and your grandmother finally remembered to give it to you?”

  “Sort of. Without the will.” Walter glanced over his shoulder. Behind him, in the shadow of some trees, stood another Hans Christian Andersen statue. It was the Little Match Girl, half-huddled on the ground. She wore a ragged dress with wide front pockets, and a patched shawl over her shoulders. Her small bronze face was turned a bit to one side as if she wished to shield it from some assault. Perhaps an icy wind? The Match Girl’s story was one of abandonment in winter. Walter stared at her, then looked back at his friends.

  “Last night my grandmother gave me a photograph.” Poco’s eyes were instantly on him. “She didn’t want to. She said I was too young. I told her I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to know something about my parents. I said it was strange there was nothing left behind. Not even any pictures.”

  “It’s more than strange,” Georgina said. “It’s suspicious. People don’t just die and disappear without a trace. Didn’t they ever write letters?”

  Walter shrugged. “My grandmother’s so old. She says she can’t remember. But suddenly, last night, she remembered this photo.”

  He reached into his pocket and drew it out, holding the edges with the tips of his fingers. “It’s of me and my mother. The first picture of her I’ve ever seen.”

  Georgina and Poco came around to stand beside him. The photo was in color, but faded.

  “You look as if you were just born,” Poco said.

  “I think I was. It’s winter in the picture. My birthday’s in September.”

  “I can’t see your mother very well. Is that her back?” Georgina asked.

  “Yes.” Walter sucked in his breath. “Isn’t it … amazing?”

  Actually, the photo seemed very ordinary to Poco and Georgina. Though they dared not say so, it was the sort of picture that would certainly have been thrown away if a person were picking and choosing. It showed so little. In the foreground there was the shoulder of a plain cloth coat and the back of a woman’s head, dark and curly haired. Over her shoulder a baby’s face looked out from a bundle of blankets. The baby’s eyes were pale and gazed inquisitively toward the camera. One small arm was flung forward, showing a mitten attached by button to a tiny sleeve. The rest of the baby’s body was hidden. So was every bit of the woman’s face.

  “I can see it’s you, Walter, because of your eyes,” Poco said. “Too bad your mother didn’t turn around.”

  “She looks like she’s turning away on purpose. Maybe she didn’t want to be seen,” Georgina said. “What’s that behind her?”

  Poco bent closer. “It’s—” She gasped. “It’s the Little Match Girl! This picture was taken here!”

  Walter nodded, “That’s why you had to come. Look, the trees are bigger now, but they’re the same as in the photo. And there’s the same grass and the same clump of bushes. In fact, my mother was standing exactly on this spot when she … I mean when we …”

  An odd little choke came from his throat. He turned toward the frozen figure behind him. Georgina and Poco turned around, too. All three stared at the sad little girl, who seemed suddenly more real and closer to them than before.

  “If only she could speak and tell us what she knows,” Walter said. “She was here. She saw everything.” For a moment he seemed about to reach out and touch her.

  “Maybe she will,” Poco murmured. “Maybe, in a way, she’s already begun.”

  THREE

  DIRECTLY ACROSS FROM THE entrance to Andersen Park was a well-known sandwich shop and snack place. It had stood there for many years, selling sandwiches to people on their lunch breaks, and ice cream to families spending the day in the park. Now, as the friends walked out through the park gate, it caught their attention. A minute later, after some prodding from Georgina, they agreed to go in and get something to eat. “You are looking a little weak in the knees,” Poco said to Walter. “And since Georgina has so nicely offered to pay—”

  “I did not!” cried Georgina, who meant to be generous but always had second thoughts when the moment came. “I said I had some money with me, that’s all. You both have to pay me back later!” She caught sight of a red-faced old man glaring at her from behind a meat counter and blushed.

  “In that case, Walter and I will have something huge and delicious,” Poco announced. “If we have to pay later anyway, we might as well have the best!”

  Poco looked small and shy, but she could speak up when the moment called for it. Georgina, on the other hand, tended to hang back in public places, even after she had pushed others into them. There was always the danger that she would make a fool of herself. While Poco read the menu with Walter, she peeked around to see if the old man was still watching. With relief, she saw that he had disappeared. A door to the store’s back room was still swinging.

  “How about a hot fudge sundae, Walter?” Poco asked. “I’m going to get one and order extra nuts. I don’t really like nuts on sundaes, but I’m friends with a family that wouldn’t mind a delivery. It’s been a long, hard winter in the squirrel world.”

  A wispy-haired waitress appeared at their table, pad in hand.

  “Three hot fudge sundaes, please. All with extra nuts,” Poco said. Her friends seemed unable to speak for themselves. Walter had pulled his cap far down over his eyes, as if he might be trying to tune in to his mother.

  Georgina, meanwhile, was having an attack of nerves. She had suddenly remembered that she’d never before been in a restaurant without her parents. Was she old enough to pay the check? Would the red-faced man shout at her and throw her out? He had not looked like a pleasant person. Even the waitress seemed to be afraid. She kept glancing toward the back room while she made their sundaes.

  Walter took out the photograph of his mother and stared at it again.

  “Do you have any memory of her now?” Poco asked h
im. “I was wondering if the picture might have brought something back.”

  He shook his head. “I don’t remember anything. Not about my father or the terrible accident either. As far as I know, I was always with my grandparents. Then my grandfather died and there was just me and Granny.”

  “Could your father have taken the picture?” Poco asked.

  Walter gazed at her with his pale, haunted eyes. “I didn’t think of that.”

  “I guess there’s no way to know for sure.”

  “But it could be true. Maybe my mother wasn’t hiding her face. Maybe my father was trying to get in close to take a good shot of me, so she put me up on her shoulder to make it easier.”

  Poco nodded. “Maybe your parents decided to take you for a walk in the park. It was a cold winter day, so they bundled you up. Your dad brought his camera, but you were so little he couldn’t get a clear shot. You couldn’t even sit up by yourself yet. So he told your mother to turn around and …”

  The waitress arrived with napkins and spoons and the hot fudge sundaes on a tray. They were big ones with streams of chocolate sauce pouring down the sides, and whipped cream on top.

  “But where are the nuts?” Poco asked, when the sundaes had been set down. “You forgot to put them on.”

  Without saying a word, the waitress took another bowl off her tray and put it on the table. It was filled with nuts.

  “And here is a plastic bag and a twist,” she murmured, bending close to Poco. “So you can carry the nuts to your squirrel friends, okay?” She tucked the bag into Poco’s hand.

  Poco was astonished. “How did you know?” she was about to ask, when the waitress raised a finger to her lips. She nodded toward the back room.

  “Watch out,” she whispered. “He would be angry if he knew.”

  “Thank you very much!” Poco whispered back.

  The waitress smiled and stepped away.

  “That was so nice,” Poco whispered to the others. “I guess she heard us talking. Maybe she likes squirrels.”

 
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