The abandoned house at the end of the lane was not occupied. Joe had ascertained that by observing it for several days. Since he was new in town he hadn't asked anyone about the house. After all even though he went to the park on an almost daily basis it seemed that no one would associate with him since he was the new kid in town.
They weren't rude about it but at the same time none of them would let him join their games. He watched pickup games of tag, baseball and basketball; once he even watched a group playing with a hackysack. Joe brought his own hackysack to the park the next day but found no one who would acknowledge him even when he juggled it from foot to foot and knee to elbow once even managing to get it high enough to bop it with his head.
Indeed Joe was beginning to feel like he was invisible. His mother and father assured him that would change once he started school. Joe carefully didn't tell his parents that he feared that it wouldn't change and that school would be similar to being assigned to a prison for children. Certainly he wouldn't be able to explore the park and the interesting creatures that lived in the semi-wilderness that it created while he was confined to a desk where a teacher explained things he already knew or worse yet confused things he was sure he should know.
Being teased about being small or nerdish was just more reason to hate school as far as Joe was concerned. Indeed he was thinking as little about school as possible while he still had some weeks of summer left. The move had ended most of his opportunities for employment as the town his parents had moved to was not large enough to support much in the way of low skill jobs. Perhaps, he thought, when he took the time to do so, if he had lived here longer he would have known who to ask for jobs such as mowing lawns or trimming hedges. He did not and he had been rebuffed rather strongly when he'd set off with his parents' lawnmower and knocked on the doors of the houses on both sides of the street after he'd done his own yard.
One further question that preyed on Joe's mind was what would he do about college in the spring when he graduated from high school. He wasn't just the smallest male in the class he had to be the oldest because his parents had insisted on starting him late and then on not letting the school advance him, as if they would have, he thought. Still if his parents had been willing he thought that he might well have put out the effort to get out of what had amounted to dire durance for the last three years at least.
Still he had to admit that not having found a job had given him a chance to explore his new town and discover the abandoned house that sat near the edge of the park he frequented now that he had discovered it. On the fifth day of watching the house while exploring a quiet stream that ran through the park and town Joe saw something unusual. A tall thin girl appeared near the partly decayed fence that separated the house from the park he could have sworn he saw her enter the grounds of the house and disappear behind a tree.
Joe watched the house for as long as he felt he could get away with that day and barely made it home in time for supper. His mother asked what he had been up to and if he'd found any work yet. He told her that he had not found any work and so had been visiting the park. The next morning Joe was awake even earlier than usual and because he wanted to get to the park early he made himself breakfast which seemed to attract his parents.
"What," his father asked, "is the occasion that you've decided to cook?"
"I want to explore the town a bit more thoroughly," Joe said.
"I thought you said you were spending most of your time in the park," His mother said.
"I was, and I probably will be there, but the park is nearly a wilderness in some parts. I can spend the day watching birds or watching a beaver build a dam," Joe explained.
"That sounds interesting," his father said, "but how will that help you graduate high school or get work?"
"I don't know, but I can tell you one thing; I don't think that there is much chance of me getting work here," Joe said with a bit of resentment in his tone.
"That can't be true," Joe's father said.
"Darryl, a month ago I might have agreed with you. But since I was out of eggs the other day and didn't want to run fifty miles for a dozen I went to the convenience market here in town. I must have waited five minutes in an empty store with a carton of eggs before the gal running the place acknowledged me. And even though I was spending money there she was about as surly as possible," Joe's mother said.
"That doesn't seem right, how can they possibly stay in business if they treat customers like that?"
Joe's father said.
"I can't answer that. I'm only telling you what I observed. I would have thought it was just my imagination except I took a walk around town and watched our son play by himself in the park then he wandered into the wilder areas there and I went home. I can tell you the only acknowledgment that I got was that people avoided walking into me. And a couple of people seemed determined to walk into me unless I moved," Joe's mother ranted.
"I haven't seen anything like that," Joe's father said.
"You wouldn't because all you ever see it that dig the university sent you on. I'm not sure at all that all the savings that living here in a house that the university must have owned, because after my recent experience I'd say that is the only way we got this house, is worth being treated like a pariah for no reason I can discern. I think that we should move away from here."
"I still have two years on my contract."
"Two years in which your son will graduate high school and need to start college or a job or better yet both. Now I'll ask the same thing you did of him: what are you going to do about it? Is there a job on your dig that will pay him? And what if I want to go back to work?"
"Can't you do that here?"
"Weren't you listening? No one will speak to me or to Joe. For once I won't wonder if hes shining us on with not liking school. I've got no doubt that he will be ignored at best by his peers. But what happens if the teachers decide that the new kid should fail?"
"If you insist I guess we could afford to have you live in the city," Joe's father said.
"I do. I'm going to start looking today. I might even drive up there if I see something interesting. Joe, would you like to go with me if I do?" Joe's mother said.
"Not today," Joe said. "If you find something that you're serious about I'd like to see it but that isn't absolutely necessary."
"Darryl I want to get a cell phone for Joe, with the way people treat us he might need to call for help," Joe's mother said.
"I doubt you'll find one that has coverage here," Joe's father told his mother.
On one hand the argument encouraged Joe, on the other hand it did not as he had not seen his mother realize before this time that his complaints about school were founded on very real harassment at the very least and bullying whenever the teachers had their backs turned. When his mother said, "Joe, I want you to come with me today," he groaned inwardly. A long and boring car trip and then running around the city with his mother didn't seem any better than being ignored by the locals. Indeed because he would be able to move around and especially explore the mystery of the disappearing girl near the abandoned house staying in his new home town seemed far more interesting.
"I should be fine, here mom," Joe told his mother, "so far no one has done more than ignore me."
Joe's mother frowned and he was sure that she would tell him that he had to come with her. Instead she said, "I'll tell you what, I'm going to be on the telephone for most of the morning. If you insist on going out to the park I want you to be careful. Also I want you to come back at noon to see if I've found anything interesting to you."
"I'll do that mom," Joe said.
"I guess that you're going to go out to the park again today?" Joe's mother asked.
"Yeah mom, there is a lot of interesting stuff to see if I don't worry about trying to get noticed by people," Joe told his mother.
"Be careful," Joe's mom told him.
"I will," He said as he headed for the door. Joe was careful to move quickly enough that he didn't have to hear anything else that his mother had to say. The argument that he'd listened to this morning was enough to dampen his day if the town had not been so offish. As Joe waked down the street he tried to think of anything he could do to make himself more welcome. He had a feeling that part of the town's problem with him was associated with the project that his father was involved in. Joe had no idea what the project was as his father discouraged questions about his work. So he could only speculate that some how the people of the town knew or suspected that the project would negatively affect them.
Thinking about what he could do to make things better for himself caused Joe to notice that several of the lawns along the street were in need of mowing. He wanted to earn money but no one was willing to pay for what he could do. But he thought, if I make a friendly gesture maybe people will at least acknowledge that I'm not here by my choice and that I don't have anything to do with whatever dad's doing that has them so upset. I'll ask dad if I can mow those lawns using our mower and gas. Maybe that will at least get people to see that I'd like to help them. Or win me some friends ... he thought.
The early morning shadows were a bit spooky when Joe exited the park. They were also, he discovered when he nearly walked into the fence that surrounded the abandoned house, able to conceal quite a bit. This near mishap caused Joe to carefully search around and find a convenient stone to sit on while he watched the house and waited for the sun to move the shadows to the places he was used to seeing. them.
Nothing happened for quite a while and Joe wasn't even sure he hadn't dozed off for a while when a cold breeze seemed to rush across his body. He looked up from his study of a trail of ants that wended its way up a nearby tree and saw the girl he'd seen yesterday. She was standing near him and the play of light seemed to make her almost ghostly. "You know you're sitting on a grave marker don't you?" she asked.
"How come you're talking to me?" Joe asked before his brain really had a chance to catch up with what the girl had said.
"Because you're sitting on my grave," the girl answered.
The next thing Joe knew the sun was shining in his face and he wondered if he'd had a particularly vivid dream until he began to feel the face of the stone against which he was laying. There were letters on it that once he discovered them read: 'Matilda, Beloved daughter, 1880-1899, Murdered.'
Joe hastily backed away from the grave marker and wondered if he'd actually seen the ghost of the girl who was buried there. That was when the second strange thing of the day and the third of the week happened to him. He backed into a woman he hadn't noticed standing there until he came in contact with her body.
When the woman spoke to him and asked him what was wrong, Joe was so surprised that it took him a few seconds to find his voice. "Who are you? And why are you talking to me?" He blurted out when he did find his voice.
"I'm Martha Schroeder I teach math at the high school here in town," the woman answered.
"Oh," Joe said. "Do you know why everyone ignores me?"
"I'd guess that most people are ignoring you because you're new in town," Martha said.
"That's what my dad told me. My mom isn't quite convinced 'cause she said people have been rude to her too," Joe said.
"I can tell you that the people here are very clannish, and if they see you coming back here it will just make it worse," Martha told Joe.
"Why do you say that?" Joe asked.
"That house is supposed to be haunted," Martha explained to Joe as she gestured toward the house that Joe had been watching.
"Do you think that it is haunted?" Joe asked.
"I don't know, I just hear the kids I teach talking about it so I thought I'd warn you," Martha said.
"I was here yesterday and saw something strange. I could have sworn I saw a girl go up to that house. So this morning I came out to watch again. I'm not sure what happened exactly but I discovered something disturbing," Joe said as he knelt next to the grave marker.
"See this," he said pointing out the well weathered inscription on the stone.
"I never knew that was there," Martha said.
"I thought I had a dream this morning while I was watching the house. I saw a girl and she said this was her grave. Until then I didn't see the marker either," Joe said.
"That's spooky," Martha said, "do you really think you saw Matilda?"
"I don't know, and I really don't know how to find out. I mean there's no last name here or anything like that..." Joe said.
"If there was a newspaper published here maybe the library would have it on microfilm," Martha suggested.
"Where is the library?" Joe asked.
Martha explained where the library was and when Joe said he wasn't familiar with town she drew a map for him as well. The directions Martha gave were clear and concise. Joe followed them to the library which was currently closed. After confirming the hours that it would be open Joe looked at the time on the clock tower on the town hall that was across the street and slightly off to an angle from the library. He decided that his morning had been productive as well as informative. He found that it was time for him to head for home if he wanted lunch as more time than he had thought had passed while he was at the park.
Lunch that day was uncomfortable as Joe's mother tried to find out what had changed his demeanor. He tried to explain what he'd decided about taking the family's lawn mower and doing some of the worst lawns between their house and the park. When that didn't satisfy his mother Joe told her that he'd met a ghost.
His mother insisted that he must have met a girl. He said he'd met one of the teachers at the high school for the town. His mother teased him a bit about having a crush on a teacher and then warned him sternly that letting such feelings interfere with his school work would be a bad idea. Joe assured her that he had no feelings other than thankfulness for the teacher explaining to him how to find the library.
It seemed like the time he spent eating lunch that day was longer than any of the times he'd spent at the park being ignored as he really didn't like being called a liar about meeting Matilda or his intentions toward Martha even if he had to admit she was a very beautiful woman.
An afternoon spent digging in the dusty archives of the library did no good for Joe and seemed to peeve the librarian. So Joe left before closing time and spend some of the later afternoon watching the haunted house and wondering about Matilda the ghost. He didn't see her again that day and he wasn't sure whether that made him glad or sad. After all Matilda was one of two people in town who had acknowledged his presence. The way everyone except the librarian or people he'd approached for a job had treated him he might as well have been as invisible as Matilda.
When Joe arrived at home that evening and approached his father about doing the lawn mowing as a good deed he was less than surprised to find that his father was set against the idea. "Make them pay, or let their lawns go to hell," he said.
With that argument, if such it could be called, lost Joe had nothing to do but observe the haunted house and wait for school to start. Life became for the most part a horrid waiting game where in the end there would just be more of the same in a place where he would be thrust among his peers who had ignored him earlier. If that remained all that they did he determined that he would simply do his work as quickly as possible and wait for his 18th birthday which just happened to fall on Halloween.
School as a senior, even if he was a transfer student, was better in some way than Joe expected. Several of the teachers were up to the challenge of teaching classes that he desired, though none were offered in computer programing. Still electronics and calculus were acceptable especially when the teachers announced that it would be possible to earn college credit for the classes if special extra credit assignments were accomplished.
Joe was further surprised to find that he was not the only person to ask what those assignments would be. Martha (Ms. Schroeder) said that the first requirement would be to do all of the lessons in the text. She didn't give a date for the text to be done but let it be understood that no one could approach her for extra credit assignments until all of the lessons in the text were mastered. Most surprising of all was that a rather pretty girl asked him if he would like to study with her in an effort to increase the speed at which they could do the text. "Hi, I'm Lisa. I've done classes like this before, it helps a lot to have a study partner or group, would you like to study with me?" she'd said.
The electronics shop consisted of both learning to solder and learning about basic circuitry. Extra credit there would consist of complex projects such as building a working AM/FM tuner or ordering a project from the college catalog and assembling it in working order. In this class one of the older kids he'd observed at the park playing basketball took a look at him while he was assembling a simple circuit and said, "Hi, I'm Tim, it looks like you've done this before. I'd like to get extra credit in this class. Can you help me learn to solder?"
In both cases Joe agreed to help setting appointments on alternating nights unless something interfered. His happiness was noticed at home with his parents telling him that they'd been right that school would make the difference. Joe didn't bother to tell them that he had a feeling that the two students who had approached him to work on extra credit assignments were the only positive contact he would have with the school system. Instead he made himself a promise. Even if he had to hitchhike out of town in the spring that was what he would do.
The arrival of Lisa at his house the next evening had his parents teasing Joe even more. In truth he didn't mind that too much as at least his worst fears of incompetent teachers hadn't been realized. Tim showed up the next night and Joe found that he was an interesting conversationalist after they had worked together with Joe instructing him on basic soldering. "You won't need more than this most of the time," Joe told him. Then they went over the first chapter of the text for the class although it seemed to Joe that the teacher was more interested in teaching them to build things rather than in teaching electronics theory.
School progressed more smoothly than Joe expected in other areas as well. Being ignored he discovered was much better than being harassed. While neither Tim nor Lisa were outsiders like he was they did have a plan to hit the highway as soon as they graduated. "Let the fools who think that you drop off the edge of the world when you go out of town stay here and molder in their increasing poverty," was Tim's pithy observation. That had been one of the few times that Lisa had been present as well and she had nodded emphatically in agreement.