Scritch Scratch – Lindsay Currie

If someone had told me yesterday that I’d be spending my Saturday morning in the aisle of a stuffy bookstore searching for ghost stories, I would’ve told them they were nuts. But here I am, staring down an entire row of books with titles like Windy City Mysteries, ChiTown Haunts, and Second City Ghosts. I guess I should’ve expected this. Having a dad who is interested in creepy Chicago history is one thing, but having a dad who is obsessed with it is another thing altogether. Two years ago, he wrote a mystery novel called Spirits of Chicago. He went on a book tour and even did an interview on the local news station. I was cool with it at first, but when he announced to the family that he was quitting his job teaching history to start a tour bus company, things went sideways. See, it wasn’t just any tour bus company. It was a ghost tour bus company. Seriously. Ghost tours. So it’s no big shocker that we’re standing in this bookstore instead of going home. Dad is drawn to this kind of stuff. The dark. The sinister.

The ghostly. I prefer beakers and test tubes to gravestones and mausoleums. Science is predictable. Comforting. It’s something you can see, hear, touch, and smell—unlike Dad’s “ghosts.” “The boulder isn’t even placed over Kennison’s actual burial site,” Dad mutters to no one in particular. This is how he gets when he’s researching. It’s more like a trance than anything, so usually I just leave him alone. Only today it’s hard. This place could put a Mountain Dew addict to sleep.

A giggle breaks the silence. I swivel my head, looking for my best friend, Casley. That was her giggle; I’m sure of it. I start to walk in the direction I think the laughter came from, but I stop in my tracks when I realize she isn’t alone. Staying behind a bookshelf, I watch Cas flip through the pages of a graphic novel while Emily Craig reads over her shoulder. They burst into laughter more than once, the sound of their happiness needling me. I ease farther behind the bookshelf and force myself to breathe through the ache in my stomach. Cas didn’t invite me to hang out with them; she didn’t even mention it. Emily just moved here a couple of months ago, but Casley has been hanging out with her more and more lately. Inviting her to sit at our lunch table, begging her to join the science club, including her on group texts.

There’s nothing wrong with Emily; I mean, she seems nice enough. But she’s quiet when I’m around. Casley swears it’s nothing. I’m not so sure. I guess I get it; Emily and I don’t have anything in common. She’s into stuff Cas and I have never been into before. Makeup. Hair products. Clothes. Now that Casley seems to be into these things, too, I feel like I don’t belong whenever the three of us are together.

“Dad,” I whisper, rounding the corner where my father is still standing, nose in a book. “Can we go now?” He slowly flips a page, then immediately turns it back as if he might have missed something. I drop my face into my hands and groan. The longer we stay here, the more likely it is that Cas will see me. Even worse, she might think I’m spying on her. “Dad!” I hiss louder, ignoring the pointed stare of a man shuffling past. “I have to work on my science fair project. Can you just buy the book so we can go home?” Dad looks up, blinking at me as if he has just remembered I’m here. He probably has. “Oh.

Sure thing, Claire. Let me check out really quick, and I’ll get you home.” I scan the aisles nervously, suddenly aware that Casley’s laughter has quieted down. Maybe they left. Peeking around the bookshelf at the register, I groan at my bad luck. Not only is Casley still here, she’s buying something. Dad heaves his enormous messenger bag off the floor and taps on the cover of the book he’s holding. The picture on the front is of several men in suits smoking cigars and leaning against a brick wall. The word massacre is printed across the lower half of the photo in a shocking red that looks like it’s dripping down the page. I wince.

“Is that supposed to be blood?” “It’s about a Mob hit in the 1920s where seven men died, so I would assume so,” Dad says with a dry chuckle. “I’ve never considered making the site of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre part of the tour, but this book might have changed my mind. There’s been quite a lot of paranormal activity documented there. Plus, the site is so close. Practically right next to your school!” Next to my school? My skin bristles uncomfortably. I’ve learned a lot over the last two years about our neighborhood, Lincoln Park, and unfortunately, it’s all bad. Unlike most parents, Dad doesn’t focus on normal Chicago history when he tells stories. Forget protests and pioneers and famous residents. Instead, it’s always some nightmarish tragedy that left behind an angry, restless spirit (or several). Whatever.

Dad’s stories used to scare me, but that was back before I was into science and knew how fake all this stuff is. “Ready to hit the road?” He nudges me toward the cashier with a conspiratorial grin, as if I’m just as excited about his new book as he is. Little does he know that I’d rather eat the book than read it. “Mm-hmm,” I mumble, slowly picking my bag up off the floor to waste time. If Dad rushes for the checkout line right now, he’ll run straight into Cas. He’ll show her the book. He might even start talking about his ghost tours, and even though Casley is used to it, Emily isn’t. No matter how nice Casley thinks she is, she’ll start rumors. New people always do. Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I snatch the book from Dad’s hands.

“You can get this cheaper online.” Dad looks like he’s been slapped. “You know I don’t like shopping online, Claire! That is driving bookstores like this out of business!” Darn. If this store goes out of business, it will be one less place for Dad to embarrass us. “I’m just saying that if you want the book, you could get it tomorrow for way less by doing that.” Please listen. Please try to hear what I’m actually saying. Please, please, please. Dad shoves his glasses up his nose and gives me a stern look. Reaching over, he pries my fingers off the book one at a time.

“The price is fine, Little Miss Cheapskate. Let’s go.” Just when I think I have no choice but to trip him or fake an injury of my own to slow him down, I hear the jingle of the small bell above the door. Someone left! Trotting to the window, I exhale in relief. It was Casley. She skips away from the store, one willowy arm linked through Emily’s like a fence—a fence meant to keep me out. Two It’s eleven fifteen when Dad and I get back home. He drops me off on the sidewalk out front, then drives away to find a decent parking spot—something that’s harder than bathing a cat. I love Chicago, but our neighborhood is crowded, especially on the weekends. We don’t own a garage, so my parents spend a lot of time swearing while trying to cram our ancient minivan into parking spots meant for way smaller cars.

I spent the entire drive home trying to recover from seeing Casley at the bookstore, but I don’t feel better. My heart is still racing, and I’m still mad. Not just at Casley, but at Dad, too. Doesn’t he understand that his stupid ghost tour bus is terrible for me? Middle school is all about blending in, but he’s doing his best to make me stick out. Pinching the bridge of my nose, I try to focus on the good stuff. I have the perfect evening planned, an evening that will make all my worries go away. For now, at least. As soon as Dad leaves for his tour and Mom takes Sam to hockey, I’m going to put on my fuzzy slippers, make a mug of hot chocolate, and brainstorm my science fair project. Unless Casley calls me and invites me over. As much as I love the science fair, that would be better for sure.

Most Saturday nights, we curl up with a bowl of candy and watch movies or come up with new ways to earn money for our microscope fund. We’ve mowed lawns, shoveled snow, and even walked dogs, and after almost a year, we’re only one hundred dollars short. Unfortunately, something tells me we won’t be doing that tonight. I check my phone for the zillionth time. No missed calls, no texts. Nothing. Maybe Cas decided to have a sleepover with Emily instead. My heart aches at the thought. I trudge toward the gate that secures the narrow alley between my building and the neighboring one, then pause. I hate the alley, especially when it’s empty.

Metal dumpsters, rats scurrying in the shadows, and the constant smell of something rotting. But since I misplaced my key to the front door a long time ago, I’m stuck using the back entrance. That means this stinky alley and I need to get along somehow. There are exactly fifty-four steps from the gate to the back door. Dragging my keys from around my neck, I unlock the gate. A dank, musty smell fills my nose. “Thirteen…fourteen…fifteen…” I focus on counting as I make my way past the first set of dumpsters. A faint scurrying behind one of them makes my hands go clammy. It’s just an alley, Claire. If you can memorize the entire periodic table, you can handle this, I remind myself.

But it doesn’t help much, because the periodic table is nothing like this. It may be challenging to remember, but it isn’t dirty or scary or smelly. It’s fascinating. A squeaking sound echoes off the brick walls around me. “Sixteen…seventeen…eighteen…” My voice is shaking now. What was that sound? “Nineteen…twenty…” Someone whispers from the shadows at the far end of the alley. It’s a raspy sound—a terrifying one. Screaming, I spin back toward the gate. “Jeez, Claire, stop! It’s just me! What the heck?” I freeze. My legs still want to run, but my brain stops them.

The voice is familiar. I turn around slowly. Sam walks out from behind the dumpster closest to the back door. He’s clutching his stomach and laughing. “Sam?” I sputter. He must have come out of the basement when I wasn’t looking. “You scared me!” My jerk of a brother comes closer. His messy brown hair is jammed up beneath a Cubs hat, and his mouth is curled into a smirk. Not just a smirk—the smirk. The one that makes me want to kick him where it counts.

Someone at school once said younger brothers are the worst, but I disagree. Older brothers win, hands down. Balling up a piece of paper, Sam shoves it into his pocket. “That scream was brutal. Jumpy much?” I gesture to the dumpsters. “Can you blame me? This place is freaky.” “So, let me get this straight. You’re voluntarily part of a club at school where someone caught their hair on fire last year, but you’re scared of the alley?” He scoffs. “It was only her bangs, and she barely singed them!” I cross my arms over my chest and scowl at him. “What were you doing hiding back there, anyway? Were you just waiting to scare me?” “Yeah, I spend all my Saturdays hunched behind a smelly dumpster.

” I make a face at him. His sarcasm is endless. And irritating. He rolls his eyes. “No, brainiac. I was not waiting for you. I was just leaving and saw you down here. Why were you counting, anyway?” Ugh. Sam is the last person I want to know that I need to count out loud to get through this alley. He’ll never let me forget it.

“None of your business.” “Whatever you say. I’m leaving. Need me to walk you to the back door, or you gonna be okay, widdle girl?” “Shut up,” I snap. As much as I’d like company, I’d rather let a Yeti walk me than my annoying brother. “I’m fine.” “Suit yourself,” Sam says, and the gate slams shut behind him, leaving me alone in the alley again. I hesitate for a moment and then race the remaining thirty-six steps to the back door

.

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