Open If You Dare by Dana Middleton is a middle-grade mystery novel where three friends work together to solve the mystery of a long-buried box planted by a dead girl 40 years ago (available October 17, 2017).
Like Birdie Adams didn’t have enough problems this summer. But Birdie’s Birdie. And if a long-buried box has “Open if you dare” written on its lid, then Birdie and her best friends, Ally and Rose, are going to open it.
And now, along with everything else that’s going on—Ally’s pitching slump, Rose’s banishment to Britain, and Birdie’s annoying younger sister being, you know, annoying—the best friends are caught up in solving a mystery planted by a dead girl forty years ago.
“IT’S OVER!” Ally’s pumping her arm in the air and yelling. “Never again!”
“Never ever,” Rose adds, not as happily.
We’ve walked this sidewalk a thousand times. Rose, Ally, and me. Today, like way too many days, my little sister, Zora, is trailing behind us like a puppy.
“It wasn’t so bad,” I say, looking back at our elementary school for the last time. I mean, not the last last time. It’s not like it’s being torn down or I’m moving to Canada or anything. So, technically, I’ll see it again. But this is the place we’ve spent the last five years of our lives together, and that part is over now.
“It wasn’t so good, either,” Ally says. She picks up a pinecone lying on the sidewalk and whips it at the speed limit sign halfway past the park. BANG. The sign quivers. As the pinecone shatters and falls to the ground, Rose whistles like she’s in the bleachers watching Ally pitch.
“After we drop off Zora, you can go, right?” I ask.
“Nope,” Rose replies.
I turn to her. “You have to practice today?”
“On the last day of school?!”
“To be a great violinist,” she says, imitating her mother’s English accent, “one must practice each and every day.” I laugh to myself. She sounds exactly like her mother when she does that. Returning to her regular American voice, she adds, “One day I’m going to launch that violin off the tallest building I can find.”
“And watch your mother croak,” Ally says.
Rose doesn’t ever carry a backpack. She cradles her notebooks and folders in her arms like a teenage girl from an old movie. Her jet-black hair bounces on her shoulders and she walks down the sidewalk like she owns it.
“Birdie!” Zora grabs my arm from behind. “Can we stop?” she pleads, looking at the park and the little kids climbing on the jungle gym. “Please!”
“Not today. Mom’s taking you for ice cream.”
“Mom’s home?” Zora asks.
“Yep. Just for you.” I’m kind of lying, because it’s not just for Zora. Mom promised to come home early from work so I could have the last day of school with my friends. Usually I have to look after Zora for the hour before Dad gets home.
CLUNK! The sound startles me. I turn to see Rose standing by the park trash can wearing her trademark Guess what I just did face. Her arms are utterly book-free.
“What did you do?!” I rush to the trash can and see Rose’s school notebooks at the bottom of the bin. “You can’t do that, Rose!”
“You can’t do that,” she says, her blue eyes dancing. “But it looks like I can.”
Ally laughs and drops her backpack to the ground. As she unzips it, I stare at my little sister pointedly. “Do not look, Zora! This is very wrong.” Ally pulls notebooks out of her backpack as I place my hands over Zora’s seven-year-old eyes.
“Let me see! Let me see!” Zora cries.
But I don’t let her see as Ally lobs her notebooks into the bin and Rose gives her a high five. At least there weren’t any real books in there.
“Are we finished?” I ask. I can hear it in my voice and I know they can, too. It’s my future teacher voice. Or worse, my future librarian voice.
“Yes, Miss Adams,” Rose teases. But when I look at Ally, she nods a little guiltily.
“Okay, then.” I take my hands off of Zora’s eyes. Rose looks at me with that ridiculous grin that makes me love/hate her. “You are a terrible person,” I tell her.
“I know,” she says. Yeah, she says it, but it’s not like she feels bad about it. Kinda proud, if anything. But that twinkle in her eyes cannot be denied. I laugh. She’s the kind of friend you might actually jump off a cliff for.
The boys whiz by on their bikes. Way too close. Connor Gomez, Joey Wachowski, and Romeo Dawson.
“Hey!” Ally yells. “Off the sidewalk, jerk-bags!”
“Whatever, Blondie!” Joey yells back. “Broncos own this street!”
“In your dreams!”
Ally can’t stand Joey Wachowski. He’s her biggest pitching competition in Little League. He pitches for the Broncos and she pitches for the Hunters. Joey thinks that baseball is no place for girls. So Ally has decided that baseball is no place for Joey Wachowski.
“Sorry!” It’s Romeo who turns and smiles at us. His bike slows as the others pull ahead. Romeo has wavy hair and a nice smile. If I cared anything about boys, I would have to say that he’s cute. But he’s nice, too. Romeo looks at us a little too long, then pedals away to catch up with his jerk-bag friends.
I know what Rose is thinking before she says it.
“He likes me.”
That’s what she says every time he talks to us. And he’s been talking to us more since Valentine’s Day. Rose is the kind of girl Romeo should like. Cool. Popular. Ready to be liked by a boy.
“Yep,” Ally agrees.
“What do you think?” Rose asks me, but I pretend not to hear. “Bird?” She groans. “Will you please grow up already?!”
“No, thanks. Boys are dumb.”
Rose says, “Romeo’s not.”
* * *
Later, when we’re sitting in a circle by the willow tree that marks the center of our island, Rose asks, “How many more days do you think we’ll have like this?”
“Not enough,” I answer. Tucked under the willow’s shade, our knees almost touch. I’ve got the prime spot, leaning up against the willow’s ropy bark.
“For sure not,” Ally says, and shakes her head. “I guess we could count them off on a calendar.”
“That would be even more depressing,” Rose says, and I think she’s right.
After dropping Zora off with Mom, we headed for our island but had to stop at Rose’s house first. Rose lives across from the pool, around the big curve at the end of our street. Ally’s house is on the other side of our school. Since her mom works, Ally comes over to our neighborhood almost every day in the summer.
On our way, Rose pulled out her phone in front of my next-door neighbors’ house. “Last-day-of-school selfie!” she proclaimed, and we gathered together on the curb, posing in front of the Gillans’ house. Their front yard is an actual Japanese garden with perfectly arranged plants and stones surrounding a covered koi pond. Zora loves to help our neighbor, Mrs. Gillan, feed them.
As we smiled into the phone, the Gillans’ brick mailbox loomed behind us—the old metal bird on top so close it could have pecked us. Rose has a phone because … of course Rose has a phone. Ally has a phone, too, but just because her mom needs to know where she is. I don’t have a phone yet. Maybe one day.
At Rose’s house, Ally and I sat on the front porch while Rose practiced violin inside. Rose’s mom (Mrs. Ashcroft to us) believes Rose has a special talent and insists she practices for at least an hour a day. Rose won’t play for a minute more. At minute sixty-one, she stalked out the front door and we headed straight here.
Our island sits in the middle of the big creek that runs behind our neighborhood. To get here we have to go down the trail behind the pool, slip into the woods, take the downstream path, and cross the tree bridge.
“What if I don’t go?” Rose says, like she hasn’t said this a hundred times since we found out she’s moving back to England in August. It doesn’t seem real that this will be our last summer together. “Doesn’t she know she’s ruining my life?”
I put my hand behind my back to feel for whatever’s been jabbing me from the tree for the past five minutes. “She’s ruining all of our lives,” I say, and they don’t disagree. It’s funny how we seem to blame Rose’s mom and not her dad, when he’s the one getting transferred.
And to make things completely worse, Ally and I won’t even be going to the same middle school in the fall. Because her neighborhood is on the other side of our elementary school, she’ll be going to the old middle school and I’ll be attending the new one. I felt so sorry for Ally when we found out she’d be the one to go it alone. But secretly, I was glad it was her, not me. Because before a month ago, when I still thought Rose was coming with me to middle school, I had yet to meet the panicky knot that is now calling my stomach home.
Ouch! What is that sticking into me? Turning, I look down and see a little thin wire coming through the bark near the base of the tree—which is weird because I’ve never noticed it before. Touching the pointy end, I jiggle it.
“Maybe I could run away,” Rose says.
“Yeah, like where?” Ally asks. “To my house?”
Some bark falls away. “Or mine,” I offer.
“Rather obvious, don’t you think?” Rose sighs.
When I pull on the end of the wire, more bark crumples off until I realize that this wire is wrapped all the way around our tree.
“What are you doing, Bird?” Rose asks.
“Not sure.” I stand up. As I draw the wire from the tree, it leads me in a circle, bark popping off with each step.
“Don’t hurt our willow,” Ally cautions.
The wire isn’t buried that deeply into the tree. Just under the bark. So I think it’s okay. After my first time around, I realize there’s more. Maybe a lot more. It’s like our tree has been wrapped with a spring that’s holding it together.
As if reading my mind, Ally hops onto her knees and asks, “What if that wire is holding the tree up? Take away the wire and we lose our willow.”
“It’s not holding it up,” I say unconvincingly as I unwind the second ring, revealing little grooves under the bark, like it’s been here a very long time.
“It’s got to be for something,” says Rose. I can feel their eyes on me as I round the tree again, revealing the third ring, the freed wire trailing jaggedly behind me.
The final ring of wire is dug deeper into the bark. It’s harder to pull away because over time it’s become part of the tree. I force it anyway and circle to the back of the willow, to the place where we never sit.
The wire ends here, going directly into the ground. Rose and Ally appear on either side of me and we look down. “What is it?” Rose asks.
“Let’s find out.” I grip the wire tightly and pull. Surprisingly, it comes up much easier than I expect, sending me tumbling like a bowling pin into my friends. We land in a heap beside the tree.
“Ouch,” yells Rose from the bottom.
“Sorry. Didn’t expect that,” I say as we scramble back to our feet.
“But look.” Ally points toward the wire. It’s buried about six inches deep and runs horizontally. I’ve exposed a couple of feet of it already. As I start to pull again, it becomes clear that the wire is leading us away from our tree.
It’s been raining a lot so the earth is soft and the wire comes up easily. It’s buried in a straight line.
“It’s going toward the bush,” Rose says, pointing at the leafy bush that marks the high point of the island.
“Who did this?” I ask, and keep pulling.
“Somebody who likes to dig,” Ally answers.
“Maybe a one-eyed pirate,” Rose says, and we both look at her. “What? They like to dig.”
“We’ll see about that,” I say as the trail stops. Right at my feet. Right in front of the big bush.
“End of the line,” Rose says.
“X marks the spot,” says Ally. “Question mark.”
“Help me.” They grab the dirty wire and we all pull, but nothing happens. Releasing it, we stare at the ground. “There’s something down there,” I finally say.
“Yeah, probably a human skull or weird animal bones.”
“Rose!” I exclaim.
I drop to my knees and start digging with my hands. Ally joins in right away. Soon, Rose is helping, too. We don’t get far. The soft topsoil yields to hard red Georgia clay. Our fingernails caked with dirt, we lean back and observe our pathetic progress.
“We need a shovel,” I say.
Rose eyes Ally, the fastest runner. “There’s one in the janitor’s closet at the pool.”
“On it,” Ally says without hesitation, and takes off toward the clubhouse.
Rose and I stare at the wire that’s heading toward the center of the earth and wait.
“What do you think’s down there?” she asks, rubbing her chin with her dirty hands, leaving a dark splotch behind. “Really?”
“Don’t know.” But secretly I’m thinking: Treasure.
“What if there’s nothing down there?” Rose says, interrupting my beautiful thought. “What if it’s just a wire?”
“Why do you always do that?”
“You know. Say it’s just a wire. Why would you say that, Rose?”
“Why would I not say that? It’s just a wire.”
“Yeah, but somebody did this,” I say. “Why would someone go to all this trouble to just bury a wire? That would be stupid.”
“What do you think it is?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a treasure. You know, left by a real one-eyed pi—”
“There is no one-eyed pirate!” Rose starts to laugh. Not a mean laugh but one that says she’s known me for a thousand years. “That’s the difference between you and me. You think there’s treasure—I think there’s dirt,” she says. “Or bones.”
She’s right. That is the difference between her and me.
It’s not too long before we hear footfalls crossing the tree bridge. Ally bursts onto the island, shovel in hand. “Here!” She gives me the shovel and puts her hands on her knees, breathing hard. And she hardly ever breathes hard. “What are you guys talking about?” she asks.
“You,” Rose and I say together.
“Very funny.” Ally looks at me. “What are you waiting for?”
“Nothing.” I wrap my hands around the shovel’s handle. “You guys ready?” Rose and Ally nod, and I drive the shovel into the ground. After a couple of wimpy spades, I use my foot to push the shovel deeper into the dirt. I scoop up a big mound and toss it aside.
“Go, Birdie. Dig,” Ally says, her eyes widening with anticipation.
“Yeah, dig,” says Rose with her glass-half-empty tone, but I know she’s curious.
So I dig and they remove stray dirt from around the wire. Sweat drips down my face as the hole steadily grows deeper.
“There’s nothing down there,” Rose says.
“There’s something down there all right.” I stop digging and wipe my brow.
“Want me to take over?” Ally asks.
I shake my head and start digging again. Another inch. Another six inches. I’m about to give up, when I plunge the shovel down hard.
Our eyes meet. I’ve hit something.
Without saying a word, I throw the shovel aside. We start moving dirt with our hands as I grab the wire and see it’s connected to something. A handle.
While Rose and Ally scoop away more earth, I pull even harder on the wire. And then, the something down there begins to come up.
“Help me!” I exclaim, and Rose grasps the wire with me while Ally clutches the handle and lifts the thing out of the ground.
A box. Smaller than an average shoe box. Smothered in dirt and clay. Ally places it between us and we just stare, shocked that it’s really there.
“What is it?” Ally whispers.
Rose and I don’t say anything. Instead I reach out and start cleaning away the stubborn caked dirt while Rose plucks off a leaf from the island bush and starts rubbing the box like it’s a genie’s lantern. Slowly, and not at all magically, a dull silver surface begins to peek through.
Ally and I grab leaves and help, revealing a silver metal box with a black handle. But there’s more. Words. In thick black Magic Marker letters. Across the top of the box is written:
OPEN IF YOU DARE.
“Whoa,” I say.
I glance at Ally, who’s biting her lip. Rose’s eyes are uncharacteristically wide.
“Let’s dare,” I say and reach to open it.
“Wait!” Rose exclaims.
Ally and I look at her. “Why?”
“What if there are bones in there?”
We look at the box, frozen silent.
“There won’t be bones,” I say.
I grin. “Swear. Now, come on. Let’s do this.” I place the box in front of my crossed legs and say, “We three, best friends for life, on our last and best summer together. We dare.” I gaze at them one last time. They nod, then I pop the old clasp that holds down the ancient lid.
Carefully, I open the box.
On top rests a single piece of yellowed notebook paper. As I lift it out of the box, our eyes fix on the four words written in bold black letters on the page.
I TOLD YOU SO
I told you so? Who told who what? I look at Ally and Rose. Our eyes meet in a way that says this is serious now. At the bottom of the piece of paper, a black arrow points to the right. I turn the sheet of paper over and see in much smaller writing—normal handwriting, girl’s handwriting—a date. June 28, 1973. And a message.
If you’re reading this, it says, I’m already dead.
Copyright © 2017 Dana Middleton.
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Dana Middleton grew up in Georgia and can’t help mining those childhood experiences for her writing—even though some of them are embarrassing! She lives in sunny Hollywood with her British husband, author Peter Atkins. She is also the author of The Infinity Year of Avalon James.