"Joe, Please hurry!" his mother called, rather harried, from the floor below. "The flourescent tube must have died last night. Can't you see enough to get the jelly off your face? Your brothers are in the car already, and we'll be late for The Children's Museum if you don't hurry."
"Well, I can Barely see!" Joe said, squinting in the dimness of one faintly glowing flourescent tube on the left side of the mirror. The one on the other side had died months before. The overhead light was on the blink, as usual, as well. As joe wetted a washcloth and carefully wiped at only the jelly-stains on his cheeks, Gary Stoeck covered his mouth and snickered silently in the wainscotting.
"We really should do something so we can see in the bathroom," Joe suggested, finishing his washing. "It's dark in the mornings these days." When he heard this, Gary Stoeck collapsed in a silent, quivering heap between the walls.
"It sounds like the flourescent tube is finally shot," Mum said, as Joe -- who was six -- came down the stairs. "Have you got your mittens, Joe?"
"They're in my pockets. Say, I know! Why don't we get our poltergeist to fix the lights again?"
Gary Stoeck sat up and brightened at the unexpected recognition.
"I don't know, Joe," Mum said. "I think it would be better just to get a new one. All ready? Let's scoot!"
"You mean get a new POLTERGEIST?" Joe was saying, as Gary Stoeck heard the front door slam behind them. He came out into the upstairs hall, and suddenly he wasn't laughing. He raced down the stairs and strained his ears at the door, trying to hear Mum's answer to Joe's question. Had he heard correctly? Would the family really get a new poltergeist? All Gary could hear, however, was the family car starting and driving away.
"So that's why there hasn't been a bowl of milk for me in months! Don't like the way I do things, do they? Well, I'll show them some REAL 'geisting!"
And Gary Stoeck went on a rampage through the house.
First, he raced up the stairs and, opening the drawer in the boys' room, he carefully re-sorted all the socks, matching Sam's tiny ones with his big brother Tom's. He grinned as he mixed only two pairs of Joe's socks with those of his brothers. He knew what sort of bickerings and arguing would result when poor Joe smugly suggested that HE seemed to be able to keep HIS socks straight.
Next Gary went downstairs and spent a long time re-hanging all the picture-frames. It was a delicate art to get them all so subtly skewed, so that some of them looked fine alone, but crooked when compared to each other. Some he set to look straight from one angle yet crooked from another. And, in one final flourish, he STRAIGHTENED all the pictures on the wall above the t-v's antenna, except for the very top one. He knew that whoever tried to straighten in would certainly disturb the others in the process.
After that, he turned his attention to the t-v itself. He adjusted all the knobs slowly, until the people's faces were deep purple, their hair a pale yellow-green. He moved the round UHF antenna this way and that until it lined up with the pipes in the wall, thus making certain that the kids' cartoon show the next afternoon would blurr and jump around whenever a car came by.
Gary admired his handiwork for a moment and then, dashing into the dining-room he snatched up Joe's precious Yoda figurine from the place it had been carefully left, and stuffed it deep down behind the cushions of the living-room couch. But the snake from around the Yoda's neck he dropped into Sam's open tool-box, so it looked as though Sam had borrowed the Yoda without permission of its owner, and then lost it.
Gary then spilled out Tom's collection of foreign coins and, taking four or five at random he threw them into Sam's tool-box with the Yoda snake. But Tom's oldest and rarest coin -- the Greek one with the rust-spots -- he took upstairs and put in plain sight on Tom's pillow. After frantic searchings, and yelling at his little brother, Tom would find the coin right where he Might have dropped it after playing with it before the Children's Museum trip.
Finally, Gary went back upstairs and, slipping behind the bathroom wall he untwisted some wires, making the overhead light blink and more or less stay on -- that is, if you jiggled the switch Just Right.
After that he sighed contentedly. It had been a long afternoon's hard work, but that was 'geisting as it should be done. There was a subtle art to being a poltergeist. It took careful attention to detail, and you had to think ahead all the time.
But, Gary reflected, apparently they no longer appreciated this art. He remembered the time he was up half the night careflly molding the shape of a footprint in a lump of modelling-clay -- the week Joe had fallen in love with the "Gnomes" book, and thought there was one in the house.
That might have been my downfall, Gary reflected. When the kids began reading about gnomes and elves and faeries and hobgoblins and pookahs, they just lumped their friendly neighborhood poltergeist in with all the rest -- and then took them all with a grain of salt.
Or maybe, Gary had to admit, he could be getting stale. That gnome footprint was his only original idea in quite a while. Everything he had done that afternoon he had really done before. Maybe never all of it on the same day, but over the years they'd been staples in his old bag of tricks.
But then, that was something he thought of as his most endearing quality. Gary Stoeck never really hurt anyone. Sure, he spiced up their lives a bit, sparked arguments, kept the old adrenalin flowing. But he wasn't ever destructive; not like some poltergeists he had heard about. He had never tripped pictures off their nails so they fell and their glass shattered. He wouldn't dump dresser drawers on the floor, or spill whole shelves of books from their shelves, as other poltergeists often did. Gary was mischievous, but not malicious.
But, well, maybe they Wanted malice! They'd see! No telling what sort of vicious little twirp they'd get in as a replacement.
Well, old Gary Stoeck was not one to stick around where he wasn't wanted. If they wanted him to go, he'd go. He didn't need a house falling on him! Why, that big old house up the block with the pillars was just Begging for an experienced poltergeist. THEY'd remember about the milk! He didn't have to stick around where he wasn't wanted.
Or better yet, why not freelance? Why not just announce his availability, then interview families till he found one that was properly appreciative? Gary looked around until he found a magic- marker -- he had hidden them all in the closet a week before -- and, twisting the tip of his tongue out of the corner of his mouth with the effort to be neat, he lettered this sign:
He was just rummaging around for a thumb-tack, cursing his bad memory for the place he had hidden them all, when the front door opened and the three boys burst in, stomping and jabbering as usual. And Gary Stoeck hid, as usual. No sense showing himself on his last day of work.
"Okay," he heard Mum shout over the din, "the first thing I want to do is put these new flourescent tubes into the bathroom lights so we can see enough to have baths tonight."
New flourescent tubes?
The whole gang trooped upstairs to watch Mum fiddle with the lamps. It was actually easier than it looked, and in minutes both the tubes on either side of the mirror were brightly glowing. While the other two were cheering their mother on, Tom tested the switch for the overhead light and, lo! with a bit of fiddling he got it to stay on.
"Hey Mum look!" he cried. "The ceiling light is working again!"
"I'll bet our poltergeist has been at it!" said Joe.
"Maybe we should leave 'im a sauce' a cream tonight, Mum," said Sam.
"Well, I think maybe we should!" Mum agreed. "You know, poltergeists are supposed to be destructive spirits; but ours manages to be helpful every once in a while. That's nice, don't you think?"
Gary Stoeck carefully tore up his sign, and tucked the pieces into the hot-air register where they would flutter and whisper in the air-currents. He skipped down the stairs and, as he passed the rows of papier-mache masks the boys made every Hallowe'en he tipped one-two-three of them off their pegs so they skittered down the landing behind him.
"What on earth was that?" said Mum, coming to look.
"WHO was that?" Tom asked.
"Frenzy-Cat didn't do that, did she Mum?" asked Sam.
But Joe only smiled a knowing smile. "I'll bet I know who did it!" he said, triumphantly.
And he was right
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