• Kimberly Baer

Excerpt From THE HAUNTED PURSE


Toni and I sat on the bedroom floor, the purse centered between us. We were eying it uneasily, as if it were a wild animal that might suddenly rear up and bite us.


“So, it’s obviously enchanted,” Toni said in a tone of wonder. “Your purse is literally a magical object, like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.”


“Whoa,” I said. “How do you know about the invisibility cloak?”


She’d made fun of me when I was reading the Harry Potter books. She’d cut me off every time I tried to tell her how good they were. And she swore she would never, ever read them herself, or even watch the movies, because they were stupid, made-up stories about wizards and magic and other things that didn’t exist. Toni preferred realistic fiction.


She clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh crap.”


I stared at her incredulously. “You’ve read Harry Potter?”


“Yes, I’ve read Harry Potter!” she said furiously. She had the look of a kid who’s been caught sneaking into her parents’ liquor cabinet—defiant, defensive, humiliated. “Mason started getting the books at the library last summer. I picked up the first one and couldn’t put it down. I went through the whole series in, like, six weeks. There, are you happy?”


“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.


“I don’t know. I guess because I made such a fuss when you were reading them. But you were right. Those books are amazing.”


I just looked at her. Sometimes I wondered if our friendship was as solid as we pretended it was. Friends told each other things. They shared the details of their lives—the places they went, the things they did, the books they read. Not that I was keeping my end of that bargain. I hadn’t told Toni I lived alone, and I wasn’t planning to come clean anytime soon.


Toni asked, “Do you think we should tell my mom about the purse?”


“No,” I said. I wasn’t ready to trust an adult. Not even Toni’s mom, nice as she was. “Your mom is like you,” I added. “Practical. It would take a long time to convince her there’s something supernatural going on.”


We went back to watching the purse. There was a moment when I thought I saw it twitch, but that might have been my imagination.


“You could always get rid of it,” Toni said. “You know, donate it back to the thrift store.”


I considered that. “I could. But I don’t want to. Not yet, anyway. This purse is the coolest thing I’ve ever owned. I want to find out more about it. I want to see what it does next.”


She took her eyes from the purse long enough to glance at me. “Aren’t you afraid it’ll crawl into your bed some night and strangle you with its straps?”


“No. I think it’s trying to get my attention. It’s trying to tell me something.”


“Like what?”


I didn’t have a clue.


“Did the perfume ever come back?”


“No.”


“Maybe it came back with my jeans. We should check.”


So I upended the purse, shaking its contents onto the floor. The little bottle of perfume wasn’t there. But something else was—the photo of the brown-haired girl, the one that had appeared in the purse the day I’d bought it and then promptly disappeared.


I picked up the picture, and Toni and I gazed at the smiling girl, who had my very own purse clutched against her hip. An odd tingle went through me. I’d gotten so used to the purse being mine, I sometimes forgot it had a history I hadn’t been a part of.


“I wonder if the purse made stuff disappear when it belonged to her,” I mused. I flipped the photo over, noting once again the date scribbled on the back—April 1998. Then I flipped it back. “And where did it come from? Did somebody give it to her as a gift? Did she buy it new at the mall? Did she get it at a thrift store like I did?”


“Good questions. Let’s track her down and get some answers.”


I shook my head, not in refusal but in doubt. “How? We don’t even know her name.”


Toni, who had been staring intently at the photo, suddenly snatched it out of my hand. “Hey, I know this house. We pass it sometimes on the way to my dad’s place. Mason calls it the castle house.”


“You’re sure it’s the same place?”


“Pretty sure. I mean, it’s a different color now, but how many houses do you know of with this round thingie out front?”


“Turret,” I said. “The round thingie is called a turret.”


“We have to go there,” Toni said. “We can get there by bus. It’s, like, six miles from here.”


“But we don’t even know that’s where she lived. Maybe it’s just some random house that happened to be behind her when she got her picture taken. And even if she did live there, she probably doesn’t anymore. Nineteen ninety-eight was a long time ago.”


“Her parents might still be there. And if they aren’t, whoever’s living there now might be able to tell us their name.”


Studying Toni’s determined face, I had to bite back a smile. I couldn’t believe how quickly she’d gone from scoffing at the notion that my purse had supernatural powers to embracing the fact that it did. Now she wanted to solve the mystery as much as I did.


“Yeah, it’s worth a try.” I took the photo from Toni and started to put it back in my purse. She grabbed my wrist.


“I’ll take care of that picture. We don’t want it to disappear again, now do we?”


****


Toni and I planned our excursion to the castle house for a Saturday morning in early May. Toni’s mom was working the day shift, and Mason was traveling to a science museum with his friend Albert’s family. I said my mom would be gone all day, too, which wasn’t a lie.


We walked to the bus stop around ten o’clock and boarded the bus for Penbridge. We’d each packed a lunch, because we weren’t sure how long we’d be gone. As we slid into an empty seat, we grinned at each other with the festive air of travelers on an exotic vacation.


The house was less than seven miles away, but the bus ride took forty-five minutes because of all the stops. People got on, people got off, yet the bus was never more than two-thirds full. Toni and I took turns playing a hand-held video game she’d swiped from Mason’s room. Then we studied the photo of the girl.


“So if she was our age in nineteen ninety-eight,” Toni said, “right now she’d be…?”


She looked expectantly at me. Toni hated math and refused to do even the simplest mental calculations.


“Thirty-five,” I said. “Ish.” My eyes drifted to the house in the photo. “So your dad lives close to this place?”


“Not really.”


“But you said—”


“I said we pass it on the way sometimes.” Her tone, suddenly sharp, hit me like a slap.


Toni didn’t like to talk about her dad and his new family. She said the subject depressed her. According to the court papers, she and Mason were supposed to spend every other weekend with him as well as two weeks in the summer and half their Christmas vacation. In reality, they rarely saw him at all because he was so busy with work and his new family.


When Toni had found out her stepmother was pregnant with twins, she’d prayed for two boys. She knew what was coming, and she was desperate to hang on to her status as Daddy’s Little Girl. Too bad for her. She’d been bumped out of that spot by little Elise.


“Fortune Street. This is where we get off,” Toni said as the bus wheezed to a stop.


I grabbed my denim purse from under the seat and slipped the photo into it. My lunch was also inside, but I wasn’t worried that either it or the photo would disappear. Nothing had gone missing since Toni’s birthday. I was pretty sure the purse had been making things vanish to get my attention. Now that Toni and I had started looking for the girl, it was satisfied. We were doing what it wanted us to do.

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