Ben leaned against Robby's windowsill until it made a red line across his chest. He watched the clouds roll in. He thought about the times when the aurora borealis, the northern lights, appeared in the night sky. Everyone along the lake would call one another, no matter what time it was, so they could watch the strange shimmering curtains vibrating above them. Even though his mom had quit smoking two summers ago, Ben vividly remembered the smell of her cigarettes as they stood outside. She'd cross her arms and blow the smoke out the side of her mouth. When the air was cold enough, Ben would cross his arms and blow his foggy breath out the side of his mouth as well, which always made her laugh. Then she would open her jacket so Ben could stand inside it with her, and for hours they would stare heavenward at the beautiful colors in the sky.
A sudden streak of light interrupted Ben's memory. Wide-eyed, he watched from the ledge of Robby's window as a shooting star blazed between the clouds and disappeared. He made a wish about his mom, one that he knew could never come true.
Ben hadn't realized how tightly he'd been gripping the seashell turtle until he felt it digging into his skin. He almost cried out, but he caught himself, not wanting to wake up Robby again.
That's when Ben noticed something very strange. In the black silhouette of his house, eighty-three steps away, a light had come on. The curtains in his mom's room glowed a bright yellow.
Ben stared in disbelief.
Feeling dizzy, he placed the turtle in the box, locked it, and tucked it back under the cot. His heart was pounding as he put on an old tank top and slid into his sneakers without bothering to lace them up.
He grabbed the red flashlight and slipped silently out of his cousins' house.
Water lapped at the dock, and the boats clacked against one another. A loon called across the night, and the stones of Gunflint Lake glittered faintly in the darkness. The woods at night were always spooky, and the weak beam of the flashlight didn't stretch very far. Ben kept moving toward his house, where the one glowing window beckoned, staring back through the darkness like an unblinking eye. Under a vault of shaking black branches, he ran.
The doors to his house, like nearly all the doors along the lake, were unlocked. Ben quietly entered through the back, into the kitchen. He moved his small beam of light around the room. The flowers and food from the funeral had been cleared out, but the owl-shaped cookie jar sat on the counter with its head off, the way it always had. The junk drawer remained closed crookedly. The refrigerator was still covered with his mom's favorite quotes. It was like entering a museum of his old life.
Ben realized that he could hear music playing softly in the distance. He turned his head to hear it more clearly and a chill went down his spine.
"This is Major Tom to ground control;
I'm stepping thro' the door,
And I'm floating in a most peculiar way.
And the stars look very different today
For here am I sitting in a tin can far above the
Ben heard footsteps. He turned his good ear toward the direction he thought the sound was coming from ... somewhere near his mother's room, he guessed.
Ben had never really believed in ghosts, although some of the stories his mom had read to him when he was younger had kept him up at night. He tiptoed slowly down the hall to his mom's room, the blood pounding in his head. A faint smell of cigarette smoke grew stronger as he got closer.
Ben paused in the hallway, dizzy with fear. "You shouldn't be such a turtle."
He inched closer until he was right outside her door. He turned off the flashlight and put it in his back pocket.
The door was open a crack, and he could see the framed Van Gogh print — a big black tree and a swirling night sky with golden stars. A shadow moved across the room.
Ben thought about the shooting star and the impossible wish he'd made. With a trembling hand, he slowly pushed open the door.
Excerpted from Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. Copyright 2011 by Brian Selznick. Excerpted by permission of Scholastic Inc./Scholastic Press. All rights reserved.