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1987 “Does it burn in the dark?”
Reid is a bully, but he’s still Alex’s best friend. When Reid pushes Alex and their friends into invading a historically haunted Massachusetts house, Alex knows it’s a terrible idea, but indulges his friend. What could go wrong?
Inside, a mysterious Shadow looms in the darkness. The door to the house vanishes, leaving them trapped. The group flees through the tiny, one-roomed house that defies logic, constantly shifting, presenting them with new doors, hallways, and rooms that seem to be plucked from their memories and fears. One by one, the Shadow hunts them, intent on burning them all from within.
Is there any way to escape? Or will they be burned from the inside out?
Anxiety pulsed through Alex and hung heavy in the humid New England summer air. As he pedaled behind Reid in the dark, the beam of the flashlight strapped to his friend’s bike bobbed like some strange drunken firefly, darting this way and that. The ripe funky smell of a skunk somewhere nearby wrinkled Alex’s nose. Hectic cries of cicadas in their nonstop buzzing played in his eardrums.
Alex thought back to their conversation earlier in the evening and cringed, wishing he could’ve stopped this awful plan. Not only were they sneaking onto private property, they were doing it at night in the dark woods, through a path that barely existed. A path which led to a house no one else dared go near.
He gripped harder on his bike’s handlebars as he followed behind Reid. No one else wanted to go through with it. It was all Reid’s doing. Big bully.
Alex clenched his teeth to stop them from rattling in his head. He wondered if it was fear or the rough terrain that shook him so much.
There was a reason that creepy house had stood for three hundred years, untouched, unspoiled. Undisturbed.
“Hurry up, Alex,” Reid yelled back over his shoulder. “We’re almost there!”Reid yelled back over his shoulder.
A small branch reached out and slapped Alex in the face. The dirt path turned sharply, and Alex swerved to avoid running into a tree. His wheel skidded as he yanked the handlebar to the side, barely in time to straighten out and hold himself up. A terrifying thought popped into his head which made him shudder despite the heat of the night—maybe the path and the woods were trying to give them one last warning. Stay away.
“I can’t see, wait up!” Alex cried out. He pedaled faster.
It was almost impossible to keep up and see what remained of the path ahead with just Reid’s light to guide them. He hoped he wouldn’t have a run-in with that skunk.
There were no streetlights this far past the outskirts of town. A heavy film of clouds blocked out any chance of moon or stars. The humidity draped itself over Alex’s shoulders like a blanket. Sweat soaked through his U2 t-shirt and clung to his chest as he rode on.
The old dirt path was rough at best and wouldn’t have been easy to ride even in daylight. That is, if anyone else was ever dumb enough to come out here. No one had come out this way in years. Everyone knew to stay away. Everyone but us.
The last spot of civilization they’d passed was Old Miller’s Bar down on King Street, and that was well over ten minutes ago. That bar was one of the oldest buildings in the town, full of some of the oldest drunks.
No one to know we’re here. Alex wiped the sweat from his brow.
The grass grew in uneven patches, sometimes spreading across the path entirely, erasing all signs of it. Branches jutted out from trees. Some reached far over the path, like skinny jagged claws in the night, waiting to snag any trespassers. It gave Alex the willies.
He tried to imagine what the path might’ve looked like years ago, before the trees and bushes and grasses took over, back when the house could be seen from the road. He tried to picture a clear, even road leading up to a small house surrounded by trees. Sun shining through the leaves, dancing across the wildflowers strewn across the lawn. Instead of the house they were headed toward, this one would be full of life. Maybe there was a little girl in a yellow dress playing outside with her fluffy dog. Mom might be inside making lemonade, and Dad trimming the hedges, taking breaks to laugh and play with his daughter.
Hard as he tried, though, Alex couldn’t complete the picture. All he could see in his mind’s eye was a rotted old house. Dark and smelly, neglected and ancient. Rats and cockroaches scurrying across the floors. Termites eating away at the centuries-old walls. No one came here. No one lived here. It was haunted. Everyone knew. As if at some point there’d been a silent agreement within the town to let it get overrun, to block out all sight and hopefully all thought of that dreadful house.
Reid brought his bike to an abrupt halt in front of Alex, skidding it to the side, kicking up dirt and pebbles. The glow of the flashlight stopped its dance, giving Alex a better target to follow. He pulled up a little ahead of Reid and sent up a spray of dirt through the beam of light.
Reid nodded in the direction of the beam. “Cool.” Then his face got serious and he folded his arms over his chest. “It’s just you and me.”
“No, they’re coming.”
Alex wasn’t sure that was true, but it made him feel better to think there’d be four of them stepping inside that creepy old house instead of just him and Reid. Like, a whole two-percent less creepy.
Reid had gotten off his bike and walked in front, straightening his posture. Blocked out the beam of light, casting an eerie shadow over Alex. It made Reid appear even taller than his five feet ten inches.
“No, they’re not.” He laughed and then dragged out the final word for effect. “They’re wicked scared.”
Alex shook his head. “Just give ‘em a few more minutes. I know they’ll come. They said so.” He took a step to the side.
He didn’t like the way Reid’s face looked in the dark. Ashen, gray, empty.
“And get outta my light.”
Reid moved back to his bike and the light shone past him once again. “Fine, but I think we’re wasting time for nothing.” He paused. “You better not be stalling ‘cause you’re scared, too.”
But Alex wasn’t listening. He thought he saw a shadow, something dark dart into the bushes, just out of the corner of his eye. He blinked and doubted he’d seen anything at all. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling there was someone else—no, something else there with them.
“Hey, Alex, what’s wrong with you? Are you even listening? You look like someone just made you eat shit.” The last word lifted the side of Reid’s mouth into a crooked smile.
Funny he should phrase it that way, because it didn’t feel too far from the truth. This plan was shit. Yeah, it was pretty damn tough to swallow. And Alex wasn’t just being a coward.
He licked his lips before answering. He had to choose his words carefully. Even though Reid was his best friend, sometimes he could be a real dick. And Alex knew Reid could easily lay him out flat if pissed off. Good guy to have on your side in a fight. Ugly to get on his bad side. Reid was bigger, tougher, and a lot quicker to anger. It wasn’t his fault, though, and he hadn’t always been that way. The mean in him only came to the surface since his mom died a few years back. Before that, he was more lighthearted and playful. Alex couldn’t imagine losing his mom the way Reid had lost his.
Alex swallowed down his true thoughts on the plan and hoped he sounded convincing.
“Nah, I’m cool.” And he threw in a shrug for good measure, all nonchalant-like.
He considered adding in a casual whistle while they waited, but he didn’t want to lay it on too thick because he was anything but cool. It seemed like the night had grown hotter the closer they got to the house. Like sitting by a crackling fire. The heat pushed at Alex. He wiped sweat from his brow and felt it beading up above his lip.
The night in this part of the woods both pushed and pulled at him. Daring him to get closer to the house, yet begging him to stay away.
Even though they’d been friends since forever, Alex couldn’t deny that Reid’s bullying was the one thing about him he disliked.
There hadn’t been many times in their lives when Reid’s ideas ended well. One time when they were ten, Reid talked Alex into climbing the giant old pine tree in his backyard. Alex knew it was an absolutely stupid thing to do. If it was such a great idea, why didn’t Reid climb the tree? Why’d it have to be Alex? But as with so many other things, he went along despite his better judgment.
It didn’t take Alex long to climb up that tree. Up is never the problem. After a few cautious steps, he grew bolder, reaching, pulling up, then finding a safe step to heave himself up farther. Finding a rhythm, Alex reached, stepped, reached, stepped, and before long he was near the top of the pine. He made the mistake of looking down when Reid called out, and that was it. Alex was struck with the panic of being what looked to be a good fifty feet in the air. He found the nearest branch and wrapped his body around it, probably looking like some clumsy sloth as he hung there.
This sent Reid into a fit of laughter and shouting. With all that commotion, Reid’s dad came out and saw Alex stuck up there. By this time, Alex was crying, scared stiff. It was both good and bad that Reid’s dad came out, then ducked back inside to call the fire department. Good because Alex never would’ve made it down alone. Bad, really bad, because Reid caught a sound whooping for embarrassing his dad and pulling a stunt like that. Mr. Thompson had released a stream of words so crass it’d make a sailor blush. Something like, “Rotten son of a bitch, dirty no good little fuckhole shit-for-brains ass…” His words weren’t the worst of it, though. Reid showed up at Alex’s house the next day with a black eye.
Still, Alex wasn’t about to mention how rotten of an idea it was to sneak into that house. A fool of a friend he was.
“I don’t think they’re coming,” Reid said. He glanced down at a watch-less wrist. “I bet Danny’s home on his couch eating ice cream, watching MTV, or playing Atari.” He raised his hand, made it into a fist and shook it in the air, doing his finest Billy Idol impression. “I want my MTV.”
“They’ll be here.”
“They better. Those two morons better not screw up the plan. I’m staying at your house, you’re at mine, and they’re staying over at each other’s. Parent lies are all covered.” A shadow fell across his face again, making him look dark and ashen. “We’ll be in and out before you know it just to prove once and for all this place isn’t haunted. It’s a sham. If we do this right, no one will ever know we’re gone.”
Those last words echoed in Alex’s head.