1. October 31, 11:57 p.m.
McKenzie shows up at the Spruce Street Guest House a few minutes before midnight, dressed all in black as if she’s some kind of ninja. She’s even got a black stocking cap pulled over her blond hair, which is sticking out from the bottom in a luminous sheet and ruining the disguise. She’s carrying a backpack, out of which she pulls a flashlight. “Ty?” she whispers.
She can’t see me. I’m leaning against the back of the house, and the light of the half-moon doesn’t reach that far into the covered porch. I step forward and she squeals in fright.
“Jesus! You scared the hell out of me.”
“Sorry,” I say. “You sure you want to do this?”
She huffs a little, as if I’ve offended her. “Whatever, you just startled me. I’m prepared for what’s in there.” She clicks on the flashlight and sets it on the top step while she opens her backpack to rummage through it. “I brought an audio recorder and a video recorder, although it probably won’t pick up much in the dark.” She pulls out a slim metallic device and hits the power button. A tiny red light glows at the tip. “Audio’s on. I’m putting it in the outer pocket of my backpack so it’ll be recording the whole time.” She stuffs her video camera into her pocket and slings her backpack on again. “You ready?” she says, picking up the flashlight.
“I guess. I didn’t bring any equipment.”
McKenzie grins. “That’s what I’m here for. This is your first ghost hunt; how would you know?”
McKenzie laughs and climbs the porch steps. “Don’t believe everything you see on TV.” The back door is locked, but McKenzie pulls a key out of her pocket.
“Where’d you get that?” I ask.
“Kelsey’s mom’s on the Pinnacle Ghost Tour staff. Kelsey swiped it and made a copy.” She unlocks the door and pushes it open. The hinges whine, a thin, shrill noise as unpleasant as fingernails down a chalkboard. “You ready to see what Pinnacle’s all about?” McKenzie asks.
There’s a hint of a come-on in her voice, and despite everything, it gets to me. I wish I could see her face, but it’s too dark. “You bet,” I say, and I follow her inside.
Pinnacle, Colorado, bills itself as the Salem of the Rockies—except there have never been any witches here, and it’s not exactly in the mountains. But people love that slogan, even if it’s a marvel of false advertising. Pinnacle is a dinky little town on the flat part of Colorado (people always seem to forget about the flat part), an hour and a half from the Rockies and a light year from San Francisco, where I grew up. I moved here with my parents and little sister in August when my dad got a job at a technology company. They like to think of Colorado as a social experiment—a chance to see the middle of America—but I think of it as time in purgatory. I have one year left of high school, and then I’m heading back to Cali.
The only good part about being here, at least until tonight, has been McKenzie.
She enters the kitchen and shines the flashlight around. It’s dirty and dilapidated and creepy: everything a haunted house is supposed to be. A bunch of the bottom cabinets have rotted, making the counters slope toward the floor. The upper cabinets have mostly lost their doors, turning them into yawning black boxes displaying a few pieces of chipped china. The ancient stove looks like it hasn’t been operational in decades, and the once-white sink has reddish stains in the bottom. “Gross,” McKenzie murmurs as she looks down into the sink.
The Spruce Street Guest House is on Old Main, which was the center of town during its heyday in the late 1800s. Back then, when coal mining was Pinnacle’s chief industry, this place was the Wild West equivalent of a bustling metropolis, complete with eight saloons, a brothel or two behind the tracks, and plenty of gunslingers who went around shooting people whenever they had a bad day. When the coal mine dried up, so did Pinnacle, and for a long time it really was a ghost town. During the tech boom of the nineties, it came back from the dead. Now there’s a brand new “downtown,” centered on a strip mall anchored by a Super Target. But the buildings on Old Main were abandoned, and they developed a reputation for being haunted by the ghosts of those gunslingers and their victims.
Personally, I think it’s all a big gimmick, but the first thing I learned when I moved here was that the locals take their legends seriously. Every Halloween, Pinnacle dusts off Old Main to create a quote-unquote ghost town for the annual Pinnacle Spooktacular, a week of “family-friendly” activities celebrating the ghostly remains of the town’s outlaw past. It culminates in the Spooktacular Spectacle, a dance in the ramshackle theatre on the eastern end of Old Main.
The guesthouse is on the western end. We can’t hear the music down here, though I know the party’s still going on. By now all the little kids have gone home, and the few teens who remain are being edged out by adults in sexy zombie nurse costumes. I saw some of them lurching around half-drunk on my way to the guesthouse.
McKenzie heads out of the kitchen and I follow. The only sounds are the whisper of our footsteps and the occasional groan of the floorboards. It’s in pretty good shape for a building that’s been abandoned, and I know it’s because the Pinnacle Spooktacular has renovated it—discreetly, of course—to make sure that tourists don’t accidentally fall through the floor on the ghost tour.
Still, it’s definitely got a creepy vibe going on. We walk down the long hallway toward the front of the building, passing the door to the basement, a dining room with a crooked chandelier, the decrepit powder room, and finally the main parlor, where all the furniture is draped with yellowing sheets. In the foyer, a staircase that used to be grand sweeps down from the dark second floor, and McKenzie turns to face me.
“Have you heard the story about this place?” she asks.
I shrug. “Somebody died?”
Her lips curve up in a slight smile. “Yeah. Somebody died.” She starts up the stairs. “This used to be a boarding house, and one of the people who stayed here was a woman named Ida Root. She was from the East Coast and came out here for a teaching job. She didn’t have a lot of money so she ended up sharing her room with another girl, Elsie Bates. Ida came back from school late one night, after dark. She was feeling sick and decided to go straight to bed.”
McKenzie stops at the top of the stairs and waits for me, the flashlight beam pooling on the floor. The last step creaks under my feet. “What happened then?” I ask.
“In the morning, Ida woke up. Elsie was right there in the room with her… except she was dead.”
McKenzie’s a good storyteller, and a shiver runs down my spine.
“Somebody murdered her and wrote a message on the wall in her blood.”
I step closer to McKenzie, so there’s only a foot of space between us. She holds her ground, but the flashlight wavers in her hands. “What did it say?” I ask.
“That’s the weird thing,” McKenzie whispers. “There’s no record of that. But there were plenty of rumors going around town about Ida and Elsie. Whether they were more than friends.”
McKenzie’s expression is unreadable, but warmth flushes across my own face, and it pisses me off. I’ve heard this story before, although it’s usually set in a college dorm or at summer camp. I can hardly believe that McKenzie thinks I’m going to buy it.
“The room where Ida stayed is the third door down,” McKenzie says. “Want to take a look?”
“You think her ghost is in there?”
“Maybe,” she says coyly.
The door has an old-fashioned crystal handle, and McKenzie fumbles with it for a few seconds before she gets it open. She goes inside, but stops abruptly.
“Oh my God,” she says, her voice quivering. “Oh my God.”
I follow her in. The moonlight shines through the window, which is hung with lace curtains. The room has a rusted metal bedframe in it, the mattress long gone. A chipped pitcher and basin rest on a bureau that’s missing half its drawers. A rocking chair is pushed into the corner, the woven seat eaten through in the center. McKenzie trains her flashlight on the wall over the bed. A word is scrawled there, red letters dripping down the peeling wallpaper.
A shock jolts through me, hot and cold all at once. I become aware of a dim buzzing in my ears as I stare at the word. The whole effect is, I have to admit, very well done. The drips look just like blood, and it ties in perfectly with the story McKenzie just told me, although I know that the word isn’t about Ida and her maybe-girlfriend Elsie.
It’s for me.
I’ve been to the Dyke March in San Francisco and seen women with the word tattooed on their shoulders or written across their chests in lipstick. I’ve never used it to describe myself because it sounds so old. But it doesn’t bother me, either. It stopped offending me a long time ago.
Seeing it like this, though, is a lot different than seeing it tattooed on a girl’s arm with a heart around it. I feel like I just got my breath knocked out of me. As if someone came over and shoved me, then spit in my face.
I hate Pinnacle.
All the frustrations I’ve felt since I moved here knot up inside me in a burst of hot anger. I want to punch the person who wrote that on the wall.
I know that McKenzie’s watching me, trying to figure out why I didn’t scream and run out of the room in terror. I’m not sure what to do. To buy time, I walk past her to the wall and reach out to touch the red letters. “What are you doing?” she cries.
The stuff that was used to write the word is still a little damp, and it rubs off on my fingers. I sniff it.
“What is it?” she asks.
It’s sticky and has a chemical smell that I recognize. It’s fake blood. They probably bought it at the Super Target in the Halloween aisle. “I don’t know,” I say impulsively. “It’s kind of… warm.”
“It’s warm?” She sounds confused.
“Yeah,” I lie. I rub the fake blood residue onto the wallpaper, leaving a streak next to the D. “I heard a different story about this house,” I say as I turn to look at her.
She visibly stiffens. “You did?”
“I read it on the town blog.”
Her tone is skeptical, and I wonder if I’m pushing it too far, but the anger inside me is developing a reckless edge. “Yeah,” I say. I cross the room toward the window so that I can peek at the backyard. There’s nobody there, or at least, nobody I can see. “You want to hear it?”
McKenzie hesitates. Then she says, “Sure, why not.” It’s not a question. She’s acting all cool, but I can tell she’s trying to figure out if I know what she did, and if so, how.
It’s so clear to me that the word on the wall isn’t real to McKenzie. It’s a four-letter word chosen for dramatic impact. She doesn’t get that the word and her ghost story suggest that a woman was murdered in this room for being gay. She probably thinks it’s funny. I almost choke on my disgust for McKenzie. But I force myself to swallow it, because now I know what I’m going to do.
“I read that back when this place was a boarding house, two chicks died,” I say. “One was probably the girl you told me about—the one who died in this room. But another girl died here a couple of days later.” I pause for dramatic effect. “She hanged herself in the basement.”
McKenzie’s breath hitches, and I know I’ve got her.
I walk over to her and take the flashlight out of her startled hands. “What do you say we go downstairs and check it out?”
“The basement? Are you crazy?”
I hold the flashlight up so that it illuminates our faces from below, classic ghost-story style. I give her a sardonic smile—one of my best, if I must say—and she blushes. “I thought you wanted to go ghost hunting with me,” I say. “Are you scared?”
“Of course not,” she snaps. She crosses her arms defensively and adds, “It’s just not safe down there. Kelsey’s mom says the tours can’t go into the basement.”
I cock my head at her. “I thought you liked to live dangerously.”
Her gaze flickers briefly to the window, then back again. “Fine. Let’s go.” She holds out her hand. “Give me back the flashlight.”
“Not yet,” I say, and lead the way out of the room.
“Ty!” she objects, but I don’t stop, and since she doesn’t want to be left in the dark, she has no choice but to follow.
A latch holds the basement door shut, and when I lift it, the door pops open with a sigh. A scent of dampness and rot wafts up from the darkness below. A chill runs over my skin, and I wonder if this is a good idea.
“It smells down there.”
There’s something prissy about the way she says it, and it completely annoys me. My anger comes back, hard as armor, and I’m not scared anymore. I want to do this, even if it’s stupid, because if there’s anybody who deserves to have their safe little bubble popped, it’s McKenzie. “Come on,” I say, and I point the flashlight down the narrow wooden stairs.
The basement is really more of a cellar. The floor and walls are hard-packed dirt, and the ceiling is the bare rafters supporting the floor above. When I reach the bottom I turn and shine the light up at McKenzie, who has paused halfway down.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” she says.
I can practically feel the dark against my back, cool and slightly wet. But I see that she’s on the verge of splitting, so I say, “There’s nothing down here.” To her credit, she descends the rest of the stairs, and when she steps onto the dirt floor, I offer her the flashlight. “You can be in charge now.”
She takes it, and when our hands touch I notice that her fingers are freezing. She sweeps the light around. There isn’t much to see. The room is small and bare, except for a pile of broken wooden crates next to the stairs. The light skitters over a door on the far wall, and I reach out to grab McKenzie’s hand.
“Jeez!” she shrieks.
“Door,” I say calmly, and guide the flashlight beam across the room. I start walking.
“Where are you going?”
“I want to see what’s on the other side.” Adrenaline is racing through me now, electric and insistent.
“You’re crazy,” McKenzie says, but she scurries after me, keeping the beam leveled at the door.
This one has an old metal knob, spotted with rust. I turn it and push, and at first the door sticks, as if there’s something behind it. McKenzie’s so close I can hear her breathing, quick and fast. Suddenly the door gives way, and the air that whooshes out is even mustier than the stuff we’re breathing already.
“Ugh,” McKenzie groans as she shines the flashlight inside the space.
There’s something hanging from the rafters.
It moves in the light before darting back into the dark. McKenzie’s hand clamps down onto my arm, her nails digging through the material of my jacket and into my skin. She’s mumbling oh my God over and over again, pulling me away from the door.
Someone else is breathing down here.
It’s not McKenzie’s panicked hyperventilating, and it’s not my own breath, which isn’t exactly steady either. It’s slower, raspier, as if it’s coming from an ancient pair of lungs.
“Oh my God did you touch my back?” McKenzie whispers.
“You’re holding my arm,” I point out.
She shrieks and spins around, the flashlight beam jerking around the cellar. The thing hanging from the rafters moves again, and McKenzie screams and runs, dragging me with her, her fingers so tight around mine it feels like she might crush them.
Upstairs McKenzie sprints for the exit, but I pull away from her.
“Ty! What are you doing?”
“Closing the door.”
She doesn’t wait for me. I’m alone in the hallway at the top of the basement stairs. I look back down, hesitating. And then I push the door shut and drop the latch in place. “Thanks,” I whisper.
2. October 31, 10:49 p.m.
The Spruce Street Guest House’s back yard is full of shadows. Spruce trees are clumped together in one area, and a dilapidated shed leans to one side near the brick wall at the back of the property. It’s cold tonight, but at least it’s not snowing. From what people have told me, it almost always snows on Halloween. I huddle in the dark corner between the shed and the wall, squatting in my increasingly frigid jeans so I don’t have to sit on the even colder ground.
It’s not long before the girls come through the broken section of the wooden fence along the right side of the yard. I hear their giggling before I see them, and I wonder if they realize how loud they are. I recognize Kelsey Fisher’s voice as she says, “Watch out! Shh!”
Lauren Meier gasps a little, as if she’s trying to stop herself from laughing. “Did your mom notice you taking the key?” She seems to be trying to whisper, but the question carries all the way across the yard.
“No,” Kelsey answers. “She’s so busy this time of year she barely pays attention.”
“You guys are being too loud,” says a third girl, and my stomach lurches when I recognize the voice. It’s McKenzie. I’m not entirely surprised—she and Lauren and Kelsey are best friends, and they seem to do everything together—but I am disappointed. More than disappointed. A sharp pang goes through me, and I get mad at myself. I don’t know why they’re here yet. Maybe it’s not what I think it is.
They run across the yard, crunching over the fallen leaves so loudly it doesn’t matter that they manage not to say a word. I hear them climb the steps of the back porch, and then more furious whispering as Kelsey unlocks the door. It creaks as they push it open, and one of the girls—probably Lauren—squeals in fright.
“Shh!” McKenzie hushes them. “Let’s go.”
I wait till they’re inside and then I follow as silently as I can. I’m a lot quieter than they are. They’ve left the door partly open, and I slide inside by pushing it just a little. It gives a barely noticeable groan.
I look around the kitchen. Luckily there’s a half-moon shining through the windows tonight, because I can’t turn on a flashlight and expose myself. I don’t want them to see me. At first I don’t know where they went, but then I hear them going up the stairs, and I pad softly into the hallway after them.
“Did you bring the camera?” McKenzie asks as she climbs the stairs.
“Yeah,” Lauren says. “My brother showed me how to set the timer and everything.”
“Cool,” McKenzie says.
Once they reach the second floor they disappear into one of the bedrooms, and I tiptoe after them, flattening myself against the wall outside the room they’ve entered. Something thumps onto the floor, and a bag unzips.
“Give me that,” McKenzie says.
“Jeez, I’m just trying to help,” Lauren says.
“I want to make sure this goes off without a hitch,” McKenzie says. She’s definitely in charge, and the disappointment I felt earlier turns toward myself. I should’ve known better.
The first time I saw McKenzie was on my first day at Coal Creek High. I was walking down the hall outside the school office, reading my class schedule and trying to figure out where homeroom was, and I bumped right into her as she came out of the girls’ bathroom.
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t see you.”
She was wearing jeans and a white Oxford shirt, unbuttoned just enough to show a hint of cleavage. Her honey-blond hair hung in loose waves over her shoulder, and her makeup was flawless: not too much, not too little. She was as preppy as it got here in Pinnacle, and I bet she had a closet full of plaid skirts.
“It’s OK,” she said, and then looked at me more closely. “You’re new.”
“I’m McKenzie Wells,” she said, and smiled.
“Tyler White,” I said, “but people call me Ty.”
It took her a minute to figure out that I’m a girl. I knew when it happened, because this tremor went over her face, as if she was buzzed by static electricity. After that, she excused herself, clearly rattled by making such a basic mistake, and I was left standing there in the hallway as she practically fled toward the lockers and her friends.
It bugged me, sure. I’m not the butchest chick on the planet, and in San Francisco, enough people look like me that I’m not an anomaly. But in Pinnacle, girls don’t wear boys’ clothes and have short hair. I think it’s my walk that confuses them the most, though. Girls usually have this swaying motion when they move, so that even from far away, it’s obvious they’re girls. But I’ve never walked like that. I walk like my dad.
I think she would have just avoided me from then on, but her last name is Wells and mine is White, so we were assigned seats next to each other in Physics and Study Hall. She was nice enough to me in class, but it wasn’t like we were friends. And her friends didn’t talk to me. Only she did—usually when they weren’t around. She had this way of looking at me, though—kind of under her eyelashes when she thought I wouldn’t notice—that made me think she thought I was cute.
I should’ve known better.
I hear McKenzie and Lauren arguing over where to place the camera. “We can attach it to the ledge here,” Lauren says.
“It’s just going to poke out if we put it there,” McKenzie objects.
They decide to stick it on the top of the window. “The tape will hold it,” Lauren says. “We have to point the lens down. Nobody’s going to be able to see it in the dark.”
Their lights bob inside the room as they rig the camera over the window. And then Kelsey says, “Look what I got to write on the wall.”
Lauren and McKenzie make appreciative sounds. Kelsey wants to do it, but ultimately McKenzie prevails. “I’ll use my own hands. It’ll look awesome.”
“Ty’s gonna freak,” Kelsey says gleefully.
“Do you think it’s too much?” Lauren asks, sounding hesitant.
“Nah,” McKenzie says dismissively. “It’s a joke. Wait’ll we post the video. Everybody’s gonna love it. We have to do a Halloween prank— we live in Pinnacle.”
A Halloween prank. I feel sick to my stomach. This is why McKenzie asked me to meet her here: to play a joke on me. I suspected something like this—that’s why I got here so early—but the confirmation sinks inside me like lead weights.
I could go home right now. Stand her up. Never speak to her again. But even though the idea of running is extremely tempting, I’m also pissed. McKenzie Wells might rule the school, but she doesn’t rule me.
When I hear them finishing up I slide farther down the hall, edging into the room next door. It’s empty, but out of the corner of my eye I see something move. I almost jump out of my skin before I realize it’s a mirror: one of those old-fashioned ones on a wooden stand. Somebody left a damn mirror behind. I let out my breath slowly, hoping the girls can’t hear me.
After they leave I walk down the dark hall, back to the room they outfitted with the camera. I want to check it out, but then I realize I’ll be caught on tape. Crap. Something in the house creaks, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up.
I don’t even have a flashlight.
I decide to head outside to wait for my date with McKenzie, and I book it down the stairs in my haste to leave.
3. October 31, 9:02 p.m.
The tour guide gathers us on the sidewalk outside the guesthouse. This is the second-to-last stop on the tour; after this he’ll lead everybody back to the Pinnacle Theatre for the Spooktacular Spectacle. I stand on the edge of the group, the hood of my new winter jacket pulled up. The crowd is mostly adults, but there are three boys about my age nearby.
“This is the Spruce Street Guest House,” the tour guide says, “which operated from 1886 to 1923, and then was briefly turned into a sanatorium before it shut down in 1929. While it was a guesthouse, it was operated by Maud Collins, a woman who married a much older man who had made it rich in the gold rush. When he died, she took her inheritance and bought this place, intending to turn it into a high-class hotel. Unfortunately for Maud, Pinnacle was never quite as sophisticated as she hoped.”
The tour guide laughs dryly, but the crowd is getting restless. The boys whisper to each other behind cupped hands. I don’t recognize them from school, but lots of people from the neighboring towns come to Pinnacle on Halloween night.
The guide clears his throat. “The Spruce Street Guest House is home to at least one ghost, which was documented three years ago on camera by a ghost-hunting team from the cable TV show Ghost Seekers.” The boys shut up, and I shift a little closer to the front. “Before I tell you more about the ghost, let’s go on inside and take a peek, shall we?”
An excited murmur goes through the crowd. So far we’ve only been inside two other buildings—both of them saloons—and this house is way bigger. The tour guide leads us up the path to the front door, which he unlocks and pushes open with a dramatic creak. I wonder if that was staged. The guide switches on an electric lantern and ushers us inside. A few of the tourists pull out their own flashlights, and we crowd into the foyer.
The guide starts up the staircase and tells us to gather around. I stand in the doorway to the front parlor, eyeing the slip-covered furniture uneasily. In the pale light of the lantern, the armchairs look like monsters. The guide begins to tell us about the history of the guesthouse and how Maud Collins was picky about the boarders she allowed to stay here, how she had rules about how late the women could stay out, and whether they could be seated next to the men during meals. The boys are clumped together a few feet away from me, talking in low voices and not paying attention.
I don’t blame them. Everybody wants to hear about the ghost, but the tour guide wants to set the scene. I zone out because I already read about the history of this place last week, after McKenzie asked me if I wanted to meet her here on Halloween night. Her invitation, during Study Hall, was delivered so casually that at first I didn’t get it, and she had to ask again.
“It’s a Pinnacle tradition,” she said with a flirty smile as she tossed her ponytail. “Every newbie has to go ghost hunting on Halloween night.”
“Really?” I said, not sure if I should believe her.
“Yeah. It’s really fun.”
“Have you ever done it before?”
She shrugged. “It’s not my first time.” She gave me a conspiratorial grin and leaned across the library table toward me. “I’ll bring some of my mom’s secret stash of vodka and we’ll make screwdrivers and stuff.”
I wondered if she understood what this sounded like. Me and her, in an abandoned house on Halloween night, drinking vodka. “You aren’t worried about your reputation?” I said, a slight smile on my face.
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on. You can tell me all about your life in California and I can introduce you to Pinnacle’s finest ghosts.”
I studied her face for a minute. She was all shiny-eyed confidence, and warmth spread through me as I thought about it. Yeah, I wanted to spend Halloween night with McKenzie Wells in an abandoned house drinking vodka. I definitely wanted to do that. “OK,” I said, and something like triumph flashed over her face before she gave me a dazzling smile.
But that brief flash of triumph I saw stuck with me, chipping into my anticipation over spending Halloween night alone with McKenzie. The only time we’d gotten together outside of school was to work on a physics report at the library. This was totally different. As much as I wanted to believe McKenzie wasn’t entirely straight, I didn’t think I should count on it. So I did some research on the guesthouse, just in case. I might be new to Pinnacle, but I wasn’t born yesterday.
That’s why I decided to go on the ghost tour. I figured I’d get a sneak peek at the place before McKenzie showed up. I like to be prepared.
The guide finally finishes his boring recital of the guesthouse’s history and says, “Let’s head upstairs and I’ll tell you all about the ghost, all right?” We follow him down the hallway and crowd into a room overlooking the street. There’s nothing in the room but an ancient armchair that nobody moves to sit in. “I’ve brought you in here because we can’t all fit into room number three down the hall, which is the site of one of the two deaths that this guesthouse is known for.”
He tells us that in the fall of 1897, two young women boarded here, one of them a teacher, the other a seamstress. They shared a room because neither of them could afford their own, and because back then it was safer for two women to board together than alone. One night, the teacher came back from work to discover that the seamstress was dead— shot by a gunslinger who mistook her for a prostitute who had turned him down. A few days later, the teacher herself died.
“She took her own life,” the tour guide says, and the whole group is silent. “We’ll never know why she decided to do it. Perhaps her delicate feminine sensibilities were too upset by the untimely death of her roommate. Just before Halloween, she hanged herself in the cellar.”
A noticeable shiver ripples through the crowd, and I wrap my arms around myself.
“Now, who’s up for checking out the deceased’s room?” the tour guide says cheerfully. Nervous laughter titters through the group. “It’s pretty small, so you’ll need to take it in groups of four or five.”
Everybody starts moving toward the hallway, and since I’m on the edge of the group I get pushed out of the room first, bumping into one of the boys standing just outside the door. They’re all wearing puffy down jackets and ski hats, and I separate them out as Tall, Medium, and Short.
“Dude, watch out,” Tall says.
“Hey, do you go to Westfield?” he asks. “I don’t recognize you.”
“I go to Coal Creek,” I say, pitching my voice lower. I know he doesn’t realize I’m not a guy, and I don’t think I want to deal with him figuring it out. A thick rush of homesickness fills me. I’m so sick of being new all the time. I miss my friend Jada with her blue hair, and Kendall who’s obsessed with anime. I miss the warm weather and I miss— God, I miss Angie. Even if she never really liked me that way, at least she didn’t think it was crazy that I liked her.
The shortest of the three guys comes back from looking over the railing at the foyer, and says, “Hey, do you remember seeing that door down there? I bet it leads to the basement. Wanna go check it out?”
“That’s where the tour guide said that chick killed herself,” Tall says.
“Duh,” says Short. “That’s why we should go down there.”
“Yeah, let’s go,” says Medium enthusiastically. “This tour is boring.”
Tall gestures at me. “Hey, dude, wanna come?”
I glance over my shoulder at the tour guide, but he’s busy corralling the crowd in small groups into the bedroom. “Yeah, OK.” The guys are right. This tour is boring, and I want to check out the rest of the house before McKenzie shows up.
We go back down the stairs as quietly as possible.
“What’s your name?” Tall asks.
“Hey. I’m Brian. This is Chad and that’s Jason.”
“Hi,” I say, nodding to them.
“What are you doing on this tour?” Brian asks.
“Just moved here. Wanted to see what it was about.”
Jason’s already at the door they spotted. It has a latch holding it shut, and when he lifts it, the door springs open. “Whoa,” he says, and shines his flashlight down the stairs. I see dirt at the bottom; the basement’s not finished.
“That’s creepy, man,” Brian says.
Chad is apparently the one with the most need to prove himself, because he shoves his way to the front and says, “Whatever. Don’t be a chicken.” He heads down the stairs, and Brian and Jason chuckle nervously before following.
I trail them down the steps into the cellar, the smell of damp dirt surrounding me. The space is pretty small, but as they shine their flashlights around the room, I spot a door on the far wall.
“Check that out,” Chad says. “That is awesome.”
I try to suppress the shiver that runs over me, but I can’t. I’m not cold, exactly, but there’s definitely something eerie about the air down here. It feels thick against my face, as if I’m walking through fog.
Even Jason seems a little freaked out. “Dude, do you really — “
But by then Chad has already crossed the basement and opened the door in the wall, and the scent that spills out is foul.
“Something must’ve died in there,” Brian says.
We all go stiff with silence, until Chad says, “Yeah, dude, like a rat.”
Jason gives a nervous laugh and joins Chad at the threshold. They sweep their lights through the space. I’m standing behind them, beside Brian, but I can see a little. It’s a big room; I think it goes underneath the whole house. There are several piles of furniture in it, chairs and tables and an old tufted armchair that must have once been pretty nice, but is now clearly a nest for whatever died.
Something flutters at the edge of the flashlight and Chad curses out loud, bumping into Jason. “Dude, get away from me,” Jason growls.
“Shut up—check that out.” Chad shines the light up and for one terrifying second I think there’s a body hanging from the rafters. “It’s a sheet,” Chad says triumphantly. “Somebody tied a freaking sheet to the ceiling.”
The boys start laughing, and I join in—I can’t help it—it’s just a sheet nailed to the rafters. It’s not a ghost at all; it just looks like one.
Something touches my back, and I glance over at Brian, who’s closest to me, but he’s at least three or four feet away.
There’s something behind me. I want to turn around but I’m paralyzed. The boys are joking about how someone got that sheet up there in the first place. They don’t notice that I’ve stopped laughing. The impression of five fingers on my skin—even though I’m wearing my own puffy jacket—is unmistakable. And then I feel someone lean over my shoulder, an unseen weight bending toward my head. I feel breath against my ear. Even though I want to scream, I don’t, because of that hand pressing against me as if to say, don’t say a word.
Suddenly the door slams shut, and Chad and Jason and Brian shriek and leap back. One of them trips on something and falls onto his butt, his hands scrabbling in the dirt, and still I’m unable to move. I’m stuck in place as if roots have grown out of my feet and dug into the ground.
“Move, move, move!” Brian shouts as they race toward the stairs.
Their feet pound up the steps, and I’m alone in the dark with this thing.
The breath on my ear is like a kiss: cold lips against my warm skin. I know I should be scared. I should be pissing my pants with terror. But the feeling that sweeps through me isn’t fear; it’s awe. There’s something real down here in the cellar. Something that upends everything I’ve ever believed about life and what comes after.
As if this entity, whatever or whoever it is, can sense my wonder, the fingertips slide over the small of my back in a cool caress. It’s almost inviting. And for some reason I remember that day in the library with McKenzie and our physics homework. It was just the two of us, with nobody there to see the way she looked at me. Her flirty grin, her body angled toward me, leaning into the possibility.
I don’t want to leave.
Something on the other side of the door in the wall thumps, like someone’s knocking. Get. Out.
Cold ripples across my skin as I realize there isn’t only one entity in this cellar. There are two. And one of them does not want me here.
The hand on my back shoves me toward the stairs, unsticking me from the ground.
© 2013 by Malinda Lo. Originally appeared in Defy the Dark. Reprinted with permission of the author.