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When the book opens up, a girl named April Hall has moved to a California college town to stay with her grandmother because her aspiring actress mother, Dorothea, is going on tour. April is about as thrilled by this turn of events as she would be by a few hundred mosquito bites and a bowl of broccoli.
But it ends up being not quite that bad. She befriends an African-American girl in her apartment building named Melanie, and her little brother Marshall. They all bond over a shared love of history books, especially about ancient Egypt. We know: dork alert. But the way they use their imagination and play with history could teach most teachers a thing or two about making learning fun.
So. One day, the kids discover a hole in a fence in their neighborhood that leads to an abandoned yard. One hitch: the yard is behind the antiques shop, which is run by a frightening man named the Professor. (At least, that's the only name he gets called. If he has a real-person name, he's too frightening to let it out.)
Even with the spooky Prof, the kids still decide to play pretend that they're in Egypt. They sneak into the yard again and again to play, building altars to the Egyptian gods and coming up with their own rituals. When a new girl named Elizabeth moves into the building, they let her in on the game too—but it's kept a secret from everyone else.
Everything sound a little too perfect and happy so far? Okay, time for a little plot twist.
A little girl in the neighborhood goes missing. And then turns up dead. And the murderer is still on the loose. And we thought the Professor was frightening.
With this turn of events, the parents in the neighborhood get a bit more cautious and put the kids on lock-down. They're not allowed to play outside alone…which means no more Egypt Game. Lame sauce.
But on Halloween, April, Melanie, Elizabeth, and Marshall go trick-or-treating with a group of other kids. They sneak away from their larger group to visit Egypt, but are caught in the act by two boys: Toby and Ken. Uh-oh. It ends up not so bad, though: instead of turning them in, Toby and Ken decide to join the game, too. The more the merrier.
The kids are eventually allowed to play outside again, even though the murderer hasn't been caught. They all meet up after school to play the Egypt Game, and they come up with more rituals and a hieroglyphics system they use to pass each other notes. One of their rituals involves asking questions to an oracle, and they're all amazed they actually get answers written out to them. Spooky, huh?
When Marshall loses Security, his favorite stuffed octopus, he decides to ask the oracle where Security has gone. Toby admits to being the oracle (so much for the magic)—and all the other kids freak out. Not because he's been lying, but because he has no idea where Security is, and that's going to completely devastate Marshall. Wouldn't you be devastated without your favorite stuffed octopus? Depending on how many stuffed octopi (octopods?) you have, of course.
They're all amazed and spooked when the next day, there is a note from the oracle telling Marshall exactly where the octopus is.
Uh, that's a little creepy. Almost as creepy as a stuffed octopus.
One night, April is babysitting Marshall while Melanie is out at a concert with her parents. She realizes that she forgot her textbook in Egypt and needs it to do her homework, so she and Marshall grab a flashlight and go down the street to the abandoned yard. This is the part where you start wishing you could shout to the kids to go back home—who needs textbooks anyway? Especially when there's a murderer on the loose.
As April is climbing in through the hole in the fence, someone grabs her from behind. It's the murderer! (Yeah, you saw that coming.) She struggles to say something, but both she and Marshall are scared speechless. Then she hears someone yelling for help, and the attacker lets her go and runs away.
Talk about drama. Is your heart still beating overtime?
Later on, they learn that the Professor is the one who saw her being attacked and yelled for help. Oh—turns out he's not such a scary old man, after all. (Anyone else see some Boo Radley inspiration here?) And Marshall is able to successfully identify the murderer, who works at a local store.
In the end, Marshall is hailed as a hero, and so is the Professor. The Professor's business takes off and he stops by on Christmas Eve to give all the children keys to the yard so that they can continue to play their game. Isn't that nice?
Plus, April has decided to stay with her grandmother permanently, and is happily settled into her new life. The book closes with Melanie and April discussing gypsies…which might just be their next game. Oh boy, another culture to take things from—and hopefully learn from, too. Let's just hope there're no murderers this time around.