Authors: Zilpha Keatley Snyder
To Libby—who was there too
ANI HAD BEEN IN
the graveyard for maybe ten minutes when she suddenly knew she was going to do it. Jumping to her feet, she shook both fists in the air and yelled out loud, “Yeah, I’m going to.” Took a deep breath and shouted again, “I really mean it.”
It was like a vow, or maybe even more like—a challenge. Yeah. A challenge. Still staring up at the desert sky, she stuck out her chin and told herself, and anyone—or anything—that might be listening, that this time she absolutely meant it. She wasn’t yelling now. Only thinking, but with a fierceness that swelled her throat as if she were still shouting, “I mean it. I’m going to do it. And right now, too.”
No more of this waiting to grow up stuff, or even putting it off until next year. Any day now, like maybe next Friday, she, Danielle O’Donnell, would load up her old purple duffel bag, take whatever money was left in Stormy’s ugly bank and take off. On the bus if there was enough money for a ticket, or if that didn’t work, by stowing away in the back of a truck. But however she had to do it, she was definitely going to go.
Afterward she never was quite sure why she’d made up her mind at that particular moment. It must have been the graveyard that made the difference, that gave her the guts to finally come to a decision on an otherwise ordinary afternoon, the last day of April in 1951, a few months before her thirteenth birthday. It wasn’t as if she’d been especially angry at that particular moment, or even any more bored out of her skull than usual. And for once the weather wasn’t even especially awful. Okay, so the usual skin-shriveling desert wind was blowing, but at least it wasn’t either icy cold or hot enough to broil your tonsils. So why did she suddenly make up her mind to do something she’d been putting off ever since she’d first set eyes on Rattler Springs more than four years ago? It must have been the graveyard that did it. Or else what she’d been doing there.
The graveyard at Rattler Springs was on a hill. Not much more than a slope really, but about the closest thing to a hill anywhere near town, and high enough so that from where she sat there was almost what you might call a view. You might, that is, if you’d grown up in Rattler Springs, and had never seen anything like a real one. A real view with lots of cool blue water, towering green trees and all the other great stuff Danielle O’Donnell had been used to, once upon a time.
The “view” you actually got from the graveyard was of a short row of squatty, sand-blistered shops, clustered around the only two-story building in town. That one big ugly building held a general store, a lunch counter, a small office and a big bar on the ground floor, and up above, the Grand Hotel. Or, as it was sometimes called, the Grablers’ Grand. Everyone in town knew the Grablers, whether they wanted to or not.
Next door to the one big building there was the post office’s little cubbyhole, about the size of a postage stamp, and on the other side of Main Street, a big wooden shack known as the town hall, which served as a church or movie theater, depending on the day of the week and time of day.
On past the town hall you got Lefty’s Bar, one of the five bars in town, and right after that, the winner of any ugly contest, grubby old Gus’s garage and service station. Gus’s Grease Pit, as the whole place was sometimes called, consisted of a paintless gas station out front and, behind that, a big tin-roofed garage with its famous grease pit. The grease pit was famous, at least in Rattler Springs, because it was so deep, deeper than most grease pits because Gus was so tall. And greasier than most, because Gus was such a slob. And everywhere, in front, out back, in the garage and out of it, there were old tires, parts of dead cars and all kinds of other junk. And grease. Grease everywhere, especially on Gus himself.
Beyond the Grabler property and Greasy Gus’s the town went on for about a block, but except for the Silver Grill, the only halfway decent restaurant in town, there wasn’t much worth mentioning. The rest of Rattler Springs included a combination motel and gas station, a few more bars, and a scattering of houses and house trailers, spread out between a lot of trashy vacant lots, with here and there a spindly, wind-stripped thing that never quite managed to look like a tree. Of course, there was also the schoolhouse, but that was another story. A story that didn’t do much to improve Dani’s feelings about the view.
It wasn’t much of a school really, only two classrooms with a dark, narrow hallway between them. Dani had been in the primary room her first year at Rattler Springs. Since then she’d moved across the hall where Mr. Graham taught eighteen kids ranging in size from skinny little Chloe in the fifth grade to gigantic old Ronnie Grabler in the eighth. And not a person of any size who had any interest in anything outside of Rattler Springs.
Beyond and behind and around all of it was absolutely nothing. Nothing, that is, but desert. And not even an honest-to-God, Sahara-type desert like you see in pictures, where bare white dunes move in the wind like snowdrifts, and actually manage to look beautiful in a deadly sort of way. Nothing as interesting as that. Around Rattler Springs all you got was boring, gray-brown, flat-out ugliness, where the few things that did manage to grow were spindly or prickly, and not even big enough to hide behind. And in the distance the hills rose dark and slick against a bare, blue sky.
But it couldn’t have been looking at the Rattler Springs view, as miserable as it was, that made Dani come to a decision. After all, she’d looked out across that same depressing scene plenty of times before. What really must have done it—and she realized that this was pretty freaky, but it was true—what must have done it was seeing her own name on the tombstone. Even though she’d put it there herself.
She’d been sitting there on a flattish rock between the graves of Clarence Bailey and Hank Somebody-or-other when it happened. On her right was Clarence’s tombstone, which she’d noticed before because it was the only one in the whole graveyard that was actually made of stone. Poor little dearly beloved Clarence Bailey. You knew he was little because he was born in 1891 and died in 1893. Which might seem like a sad story if you didn’t stop to think that at least he’d escaped having to grow up in Rattler Springs. And you knew he was dearly beloved because somebody had gone to the trouble to put up a marble tombstone, instead of a wooden cross. Or even just a slab of wood, like the one over poor old illegible Hank.
The sad news on Clarence’s marble tombstone was easy enough to read, but Hank’s statistics were another matter. The writing on Hank’s grave marker had been burned into the wood, probably with a branding iron. The first four letters were
she was fairly sure about that. But then came a last name that started with what might have been an
before it faded away into a bunch of splinters. There was, in fact, only one spot on the weathered old slab that was still fairly smooth and it was there that Dani, for some unknown reason, had started to write her own name. Not branding it into the wood, like they’d done for poor old Hank, but only scratching it in with a rusty nail.
—she’d written, and then she’d stopped. Stopped scratching and for a moment almost stopped breathing, with the horror of it. The horror of a terrible heart-stopping fear. It didn’t come from the notion that she was going to die someday. She’d never wasted much energy worrying about that. But more likely from suddenly facing the possibility that she might die right there. That she might live out her whole life in Rattler Springs without ever escaping back to where she belonged.
It was then that she caught her breath, dropped the nail as if it had burned her fingers, jumped to her feet and started yelling. And then hushed, and stood motionless, only moving her eyes from one side to the other as she waited—and listened.
There was no answer, of course, at least not one that she heard with her ears, but the desert was talking to her, all right. Telling her that it wouldn’t ever let her get away. Like it had almost every day for the last four years. Ever since that blazing hot day in 1947 when she and Linda had arrived in Rattler Springs. Dani shook her head fiercely, took a deep breath and began to run. But she’d only gone a few steps when she stumbled on a rock and turned her ankle.
It hurt. For a minute or two it hurt like anything. She hopped for a while, muttering “Ouch” and a few other things, before she managed to go on. Refusing to limp, she tried not to wonder if the desert had done it on purpose. Had put that rock there to let her know how easy it would be to stop her if she ever tried anything desperate. Showing her how it could use a sneaky rock, or the blazing sun, or just hundreds of miles of emptiness, to keep her from making it. “Nice try,” she told the desert, “but you don’t scare me any.” She kept right on then at a slightly painful jog until she got to the end of the graveyard trail. And just beyond the trail’s end, Silver Avenue.
ILVER AVENUE. SLOWING TO
a walk and not even bothering to look both ways, Dani started right up the middle of the crumbling, potholed stretch of blacktop that some long-ago dreamer had the nerve to name Silver Avenue. “Sssil-ver Ah-ven-ooo.” Dani always stuck out her chin and waggled her head around in a “grand lady” put-on, whenever she had to give her address. “Number seventeen, Sssil-ver Ah-ven-ooo.” What a laugh. As if there had ever been much silver, or anything halfway grand enough to be called an avenue, in Rattler Springs.
She was almost home, still waggling her head and murmuring “Sss-il-ver” when, right behind her and practically in her ear, a voice said, “You going nuts or something?” Dani whirled around, but of course it was only Stormy.
“Nuts? Not me,” Dani said. “But I will be if you don’t stop sneaking up on me like that.” Grabbing Stormy by his collar, she hissed in his ear, “Don’t you know you can drive people crazy, doing stuff like that?”
She turned him loose then and, putting her hands on her hips, glared at him. Poor old Stormy Arigotti had been following her around like a pet dog ever since he’d come to Rattler Springs at least two years before. He’d moved right into the Grand Hotel because his mother worked there, and since Dani lived next door it hadn’t taken Stormy long to start moving in on her. And not only when she was at home either. Stormy had a talent for showing up almost anywhere. Like in the middle of Silver Avenue, for instance.
She never had been able to figure out how a short, clunky nine-year-old kid could be so good at sneaking around. You’d be walking along, on your way to the rest room at school, or crossing the highway or even heading out to the trash can in your own backyard, for heaven’s sake, and there he’d be, sudden and silent as a snake.
“Okay, what’s up?” Dani asked him impatiently. “What do you want now?”
“Nothin’. Not exactly right now anyways, but …” Looking down sheepishly, Stormy began to pull something out of his jacket pocket. “But maybe later …”
It was a book, of course. Dani jerked it away from him. “What is it this time?”
“It’s a short one,” Stormy said. “See, it’s just …” He reached out, trying to turn the book to the last page, but she snatched it away and put it behind her back. Stormy made a grab for it but she turned quickly, making him miss.