“Stop him,” cried Alfredo's mother.
“Roberto's fine, Mama. He can't get in the house,” Alfredo said comfortingly.
We stood together around the kitchen window, watching Roberto tiptoe along the side of the Johnson house. He was working his way around to the front door.
“Alfredo's right, Mama,” piped up Tina. “Roberto can't get in to tease the ghost. He'll come right back, as soon as he realizes the house is locked.”
Uh-oh. “I...um. I unlocked the front door before we came over here,” I announced. Dang it.
“What the heck were you thinking,” shouted Steve.
“I was thinking we were going into the house.”
Alfredo and his father ran out of the kitchen. I heard them open the front door, no doubt intending to intercept Roberto before he reached the Johnson's front porch.
“Come on, Maryanne. This is your mess. You need to clean it up,” snapped Steve.
“Just a minute.” My eyes were fixed on the shadow of Hank Johnson's ghost.
“Now, Maryanne. Go stop Roberto.”
“Stop him from doing what? You can't think the boy's about to annoy a ghost. You don't believe in ghosts. Remember?”
Steve grabbed on of my shoulders with an iron grip. “I know that Alfredo's worried about his little brother. That's enough to show me there's some real danger.”
“Quiet,” I hissed. “Look.”
Roberto disappeared behind the front corner of the Johnson house. Inside the house, Hank's ghostly head turned slowly to face the door. The ghost waited. The sharp twist of it's head, turned 180 degrees on its shoulders, sent my heart racing.
“That thing moved,” whispered Steve. “I thought it was just condensation inside the window.”
“Are you in the habit of seeing malevolent condensation?” I asked sarcastically. “No, a tentacled snivel moon.”
“It's an anagram. Stop bothering me.”
“We have to get Roberto.”
“Wait,” I hissed sharply.
Something flew past the ghost, moving fast. Roberto's toast. The ghost twisted around, tracking the toast. It snarled and chased after the offending piece of bread.
“I wish Roberto wouldn't tease that thing,” said the boy's mother.
“Does he do this often?”
“Never when Mrs. Johnson is around. And the house has been locked, and his dad and I try to watch him.”
“Has he ever gone in the house?”
“No. He's very good at throwing things. He just teases the ghost from the front door. But I don't like it. It doesn't seem safe.”
“He's great at throwing things,” interjected Tina. “Sometimes he throws cheese crackers across the room, and we catch them in our mouths. We hardly have to move.”
Her mother gestured to the Johnson house and said, “This is no cheese-cracker toss.”
I turned away from the window. “Can anyone tell me why the ghost is obsessed with food?” I asked the family.
One of the girls raised her hand.
“Yes, Mary. What is it?”
“He choked to death. So he hates food,” Mary said primly.
I nodded. “I guess the next question is, why did he choke to death.”
“Oh. I don't know that.”
“It's okay, Mary. I didn't expect you to,” I said with a smile. “I was really asking myself the question, and I don't have the answer either. Not yet.”
The mother frowned thoughtfully. “Nora did nag him about eating,” she told me. She turned to watch as her husband and sons re-enter the kitchen. Roberto was rubbing his bottom; someone had delivered a wake-up call to his backside.
“Did Nora nag Hank about eating too much, or too little?” I pressed.
“Neither. She nagged him about eating too fast. He rushed through every meal she made, like he couldn't wait to get away from her.”
I wondered. Was it that he couldn't wait to get away from Nora, or that he couldn't wait to get out of the house?
“She was always telling him to take smaller bites,” finished Alfredo's mother.
“Smaller bites, you say. Interesting,” I remarked. “I wonder if Hank ever choked on food before the incident in the church.”
“And what happened in the church when he died,” added Steve.
“Yes. It's time we had a conference with the holy men.”