Authors: Betty Ren Wright
The Ghost of Popcorn Hill
Betty Ren Wright
Illustrations by Karen Ritz
Lauren and Courtney
“Stop laughing,” Martin said. He glared across the dark room at his little brother's bed.
“I'm not laughing,” Peter protested. “I thought that was you.”
“Well, it wasn't.” They listened for a while, and then Martin went on with his story. “So Jimmy Adams couldn't find his kitten, and everybody thought it was dead or something.”
Peter moved restlessly under his covers. “I don't like this story,” he said. “It's too sad.”
“No it's not,” Martin said. “Because they found the kitten finally, and do you know where he was?”
“How would I know that?”
“He was in the salad bowl, in the kitchen sink. All covered with French dressing and sound asleep.” Martin chuckled to himself, and then he stopped again to listen. “You did laugh before,” he said. “During the sad part.”
Both boys lay very still, and Martin discovered he had goose bumps. He knew he had heard a laugh.
“I'm scared,” Peter whispered, sounding as if he might cry.
Martin took a deep breath. “Forget about who laughed,” he ordered. “Think about something nice. Think about tomorrow when we get the dog.”
Peter stopped sniffling. “It'll be the biggest dog in the whole world,” he murmured in a dreamy voice. “I can't wait.”
“So go to sleep,” Martin said. “Tomorrow will come faster.”
A minute or two later, soft snores told him Peter had taken his advice. That was the trouble with being three years older. You had to stay awake and do all the worrying. Now that he'd started thinking about the dog they were going to get tomorrow, he had to worry about
. Would it really be the biggest dog in the world? That was what both boys wanted. A big dog could pull their wagon around the yard. In the wintertime he could drag their sled up Popcorn Hill. He would be the perfect pet, but Martin wasn't at all sure they were going to get him.
The trouble was their father. He insisted that a big dog wouldn't fit in their little old cabin. A big dog would cost too much to feed.
Remember, we moved to Popcorn Hill when I lost my job, and we have to save some money
, he'd told Martin and Peter about a hundred times in the last few months.
Let's be sensible about this
“I don't want to be sensible,” Martin whispered unhappily into the darkness. “I want a big dog as much as Peter does.”
And then, to his horror, it happened again. “
” something laughed. “
It was the scariest sound Martin had ever heard.
Peter woke up first.
“Today's the day,” he shouted in Martin's ear. “Wake up, wake up, wake up!”
Martin yawned and pushed back the covers. The boys dressed quickly and went out to the kitchen, where their mother was making oatmeal for breakfast.
“You're up bright and early,” she said cheerfully. “I bet I know why.”
“It's dog day,” Peter explained, as if he were the only one who kept track. Martin and his mother grinned at each other.
“It certainly is,” Mrs. Tracy said. “I'm as excited as you are.”
“No, I'm the most excited,” Peter said. “I'm the most excited person in this house.”
Martin opened the screen door and went outside. The cabin was smallâone long room that was both kitchen and living room, and two bedrooms. The bathroom was a little house at the end of the yard, and the water they needed came from a pump next to the porch.
It isn't much of a place
, Martin's father had said when they moved in.
But it will have to do for now. And look at that view!
Martin looked at the view every morning. From the top of Popcorn Hill you could see for miles. Fruit trees, with blossoms that looked like popcorn, dotted the hillside. Beyond were meadows and a creek, and there were woods everywhere. Maybe the cabin wasn't much of a house, but Martin knew he'd rather live there than anywhere else in the world.
When he went back inside, his father was sitting at the round table. “Eat your breakfast, guys,” he said. “We've got a job to do.” He winked at Peter, and Peter blinked back.
Martin poured milk on his oatmeal and added some cinnamon. He wasn't hungry, but he knew he had to eat or his mother would think he was sick. There was so much to think about. The dogâthe
dog. And the ghostly laughter they had heard last night. Should he tell his parents about that? He wanted to, but his father would probably make a joke about it, and his mother would think it was a burglar.
It wasn't a burglar
, he assured her silently.
Burglars don't laugh like that. Nothing laughs like that
“Martin, you look worried,” his father said. “Has the President of the United States been pestering you for advice again?”
Martin tried to smile. “Something weird happened last night,” he mumbled. “We heard a man laughing.”
His father took a sip of coffee. “Me,” he said. “I laugh a lot. It's better than crying.”
“It wasn't you, Daddy,” Peter said. “This was really scary.”
“Oh, dear, I hope it wasn't burglars!” Mrs. Tracy exclaimed. “I've been afraid of this. Living way out here, so far from everybody.â¦”
Mr. Tracy pushed back his chair. “It wasn't burglars. We don't have anything worth stealing,” he said. “Anyway, after today you won't have to give burglars a thought. We'll have a dog to protect us.” He grinned at Martin and Peter. “Ready to go? Last one in the truck is a leadfoot.”
Martin was the last one in the truck, because he didn't even run. He was too busy wishing he hadn't mentioned that mysterious
. He didn't want his mother to think there was anything bad about living on Popcorn Hill. He wanted to live there forever.
When they parked in front of the Humane Society, Martin felt as if it were Christmas and his birthday rolled into one. Too excited to talk, he and Peter followed their father into the office and then through another door. Big barks and little ones greeted them.
“Right this way,” the caretaker said. “The dogs are on this aisle, and the cats are on the next one.”
“We want a dog,” Peter said. “A great big one.”
Mr. Tracy shook his head. “Not a big one,” he said firmly. “We just want a nice dog that'll be fun to have around the house.”
“Gotcha,” the caretaker said. He pointed at a tiny gray dog with long ears and a short, stand-up tail. “There's a lively little guy.”
The gray dog yipped and jumped against the wire netting. Martin bit his lip. He felt sorry for the little dog, but he didn't want to take him home.
“I think maybe he's a bit
small,” Mr. Tracy said. “What do you think, boys?”
Martin nodded. Peter had already moved to the next pen. His eyes were as round as marbles.
“Daddy, here he is!” he shouted. “Here's our dog!”
They gathered behind Peter and stared into the cage. A silver-coated German shepherd stared back at them.
“Oh, wow,” Martin breathed. “He's perfect.” He could picture the huge dog pulling their wagon and walking with them to school. Everyone would want to pet him, but they wouldn't dare until Martin or Peter said it was all right.
perfect,” Mr. Tracy said. “And don't try to gang up on me, because it won't do any good. We don't have room for a dog this size. And we certainly can't afford to feed him.” He was smiling, but there was a note in his voice that warned the boys not to argue.
They walked on, past a little brown-and-white spotted dog with a twisty tail, and a long, low mop of a dog that lay fast asleep.
“Next one's part Labrador,” the caretaker said. “A real beauty!”
“Wow!” Peter breathed. The gleaming black dog was as big as a pony.
“Don't even ask,” Mr. Tracy said.
The caretaker patted Peter's head. “Wait'll you see what we have in the last pen,” he said cheerfully. “You'll love her.”
The dog in the last pen was black too, with lots of white patches. Her feathery tail swept back and forth, and she pressed her freckled nose against the netting.
“She's a honey,” the caretaker told them. He looked from Martin to Peter. “She's only about ten months oldâjust right for training.” Then he turned to Mr. Tracy. “Won't get much bigger than she is right now.”