What follows is a story I wrote a number of years ago (c. 1995). I initially wrote it with the intention of submitting it to children's short story contests...which I never got around to. I did do quite a bit of looking in search of competitions to submit it to, but finding them proved difficult. Anyway, since it is written in the spirit of the current season (All Hallows), I'm posting it here. :)
The grey evening was chill. Chaotically shaped dead leaves danced in the playful breezes of the approaching night. Naked trees stood like sentinels, their bare and twisted branches creaking ever so slightly. Amid the moaning winds, there could be heard the faint eerie laughing of the spirit. The spirit of Halloween.
This was the scene that surrounded the house. It was the only company the old mansion had. No one had lived inside its walls for quite some time...and no one ever would. You see, no visitors from the town came here. The word had been out for years about this place, and that word was ‘haunted’.
Young Billy Jenkins had grown up in total belief. Every year, he and his cohorts would don the creepiest costumes their imaginations could create (they always made their own costumes), and then they would troop past Trenton manor, each grasping the others hand with a small sweaty palm, their knuckles whitening with the grip of fright. Sam Crandal, the group’s self-appointed leader, would stop just in front of the rickety gate. In a loud bold voice, he would challenge anyone from the group to steal up the long gnarled path, and mount the front steps to the sagging porch to remain there for a count of ten. To most it would not have sounded like such a tall order. Walk up the path to the porch, and stand there while you counted to ten. Easy, right? No one ever took up the challenge. They knew better. All were convinced that nothing but doom lay in wait for the fool who entered the fenced in yard. There were all sorts of stories of victims past, but the cold feelings of evil unseen were all they needed to keep them to the sidewalk. The challenge unmet, the throng would continue on their night of sweet gathering and mischief making.
It was perfect. From the black high collared cape his mother had made him, to the white face make-up he had smeared over his features. A black eye pencil had accented his eyebrows and lips. He now retrieved the finishing touch from his dresser. Opening wide, Billy inserted the plastic hinged fangs into his mouth. The package had said ‘Frighteningly Life Like’, and Billy had to agree. He would be the scariest Count in the neighborhood. Maybe this year he would be the proud winner of the costume contest at Danica Miller’s Halloween party. After dripping fake blood at the corners of his mouth, Billy trotted downstairs to answer the ringing doorbell.
It was the gang. They were all decked out in their new costumes and looked appraisingly at Billy’s Dracula cape. Sam Crandall stepped forward to the front of the group, silver plastic bolts protruding from his green neck. Behind Sam, Billy could make out a wolf man, a zombie, and a wizard. It appeared that he wasn’t the only one who had out done themselves this year. Grabbing his candy bag from the entryway table, Billy stepped over the threshold and into the crisp night air with his friends. No one spoke. They all knew where to go. Another year had passed and their ritual had begun once more.
They met several other groups of ghouls on their trek to Trenton Manor. As they neared the patch of land on which the house stood, the houses in the neighborhood became fewer as did the street lamps. The air seemed to grow cooler and the moaning of the wind became louder. It was as it always was.
The house loomed larger as they approached, the only sign of its presence being a huge house-shaped black mound. They were almost there. What would happen this time? Billy felt that tonight there would be something more, and the feeling made him shudder.
As the small group of monsters arrived at the decrepit fence, Billy took out his teeth and popped a chocolate he had taken from the bowl of candy his mother had bought into his mouth. The sweetness of the candy gave him a strange sort of reassurance, but it didn’t last long.
The ritual continued on its usual course. Sam Crandal stepped to the gate and stood there, the dark shadow of his flat green head blending momentarily with the shadows of the house. Crossing his arms across his chest, Sam made his challenge. His dare.
Who would do it? Billy knew deep inside his gut that someone was going to walk up that rough and craggy path. But who would it be? Just as the question entered his mind, he had his answer.
Dave Williams spoke up from the back, his wolf teeth slurring his speech. This was different. No one had ever responded before. There had always been a silent answer that had come from all of them as a whole. Now Dave was breaking the chain. He was issuing a new challenge…and it was directed at Sam Crandal.
Sam had always dared them to go up to the house. He was the one who had announced that day long ago that HE was in charge. Well, if he was so smart and so fearless why didn’t he walk up to the house? He had always called them chickens when they had backed away from his challenge. Well, now it was time to see who the real chicken was.
Sam’s heart began to pound in his chest, and a swarm of butterflies began churning around in his stomach. He looked around at all of their painted and masked faces poking at him through the darkness. Would he go? Could it be that he was the biggest chicken of them all? Cold sweat popped out on his face, the black scar drawn on his forehead smearing. Sam knew there was only one thing he could do. Swallowing back the lump edging up his throat, he nodded. Sam would go.
As if on cue, the bright full harvest moon pulled a blanket of wispy grey clouds over its face. What light had been filtering down to earth was now gone. Sam Crandal looked over at his companions once more, the glow of Billy’s white face standing out among them. His eyes paused momentarily on Count Dracula, a twinge of helplessness touching his panicked eyes. He tried to force the lump in his throat away all together. He swallowed hard, the sound audible to all. Slowly turning to the rickety gate, Sam reached out a shaking hand.
The long unused hinges had turned to rust. When they were put to work the rotting wood gave and clattered to the ground. Behind Sam the boys all jumped, barely able to breathe at this point. They were all petrified with fear, but glad it wasn’t them going.
Stepping over the fallen boards, Sam stopped for a moment and stared up the winding path. Through the darkness he could faintly make out the huge double doors leering at him through a gap between two gnarled trees. The mouth. Trying to chip away a little of his fear, Sam reluctantly stepped forward. Slowly he took another step. And another. He was no more than twenty feet away from his friends, but the distance felt like miles. He wanted desperately to look back to reassure himself that he wasn’t alone, but he knew that if he did that it would break down what little courage he had. Most importantly, he would lose whatever respect the rest of the gang had for him. Reluctant fear coursing through him, he continued up the path.
The wind whispered his name. Scattered rocks poked at his feet through the soles of his tennis shoes. Pulling his blue windbreaker closer about him, he looked ahead. There were the front stairs. Weeds grew up around them, and a couple of boards were missing. His steps faltered, but he pushed himself on. After all he couldn’t let them think he was a chicken. Could he? A twig cracked loudly under his feet and he jumped. His mind shifted into panic mode for a moment. Were they still there? Were his friends still waiting for him on the safety of the sidewalk? He desperately wanted to look back. No, he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He was almost there. Up to the porch for a count of ten. That was all he had left to do. Then he could run away.
As he reached the bottom step, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. His head snapped to the right. Who’s there? The form of a thin rabbit bounded into a bramble bush. His heart was beating feverishly now. Lifting his foot, he placed it on the bottom step. It creaked. Then the next. It snapped a little, but held. Now for the final step up to the porch. As his weight shifted forward, the boards of the old porch groaned. It was as if the house was giving Sam a malevolent salutation. It was as if it had been waiting for his visit. Okay. He was here. Time to get this over with. As loud as he could, he started the countdown. “ONE!”
Back at the sidewalk, they had been whispering nervously to each other. They were glad that it wasn’t them walking up there. Billy pulled his Dracula cape around him for warmth. It had seemed like forever since Sam had left them. Just when he was about to give up, Billy heard a voice bite through the murky air. It was Sam. Sam had made it. Billy visibly calmed and he sensed the same reaction around him.
Sam’s voice invaded the air again. “TWO!” And again. “THREE!” Billy looked over at the wizard, who was chewing anxiously on the end of his wand. “FOUR!” He looked at the zombie, who was gnawing vigorously on his lower lip. “FIVE!” He looked at the wolf man, who seemed to be scratching at imaginary fleas. Billy swallowed and looked back toward the house. Halfway there. Sam was halfway there.
Back at the porch, Sam’s heart was beating even harder. It felt like it had risen several inches up in his throat. “SIX!” He had really begun to yell now, and was starting to get a little hoarse. “SEVEN!”
What was that behind him? He spun around and stumbled. The sensation of his hair standing on end washed over his body. A broken window shutter banged lazily against the side of the house. That must be what he had heard. Sam turned back around to face towards his friends and the safety of the street. He was almost finished. He was more than halfway there. “EIGHT!”
Billy and the others heard Sam call out, mouthing the number along with him. They shifted nervously in their places next to each other. Again they heard him. “NINE!” Collectively the boys felt a surge of excitement. A surge of relief. Sam was almost done. He was almost there.
They waited. The clouds moving across the bright moon caused the shadows in the Manor’s yard to twist and shift eerily. They were met with silence. Billy felt the fear from before start to move through him again. There was supposed to be a ‘ten’. Just one more and Sam was done. They waited. And waited. It didn’t come.
Was this some sort of joke? They had questioned Sam’s strength of courage. Maybe he was trying to teach them a lesson. Billy wouldn’t put it past him. They did call Sam a chicken. He had probably left through the side of the yard and was on his way to Danica Miller’s house. It would be just like Sam to leave them standing there in sheer panic while he was laughing all the way to the party.
This wasn’t funny. Several minutes had passed and there was no sign of Sam Crandal. Billy called out for him, his breath faint smoke on the chilly air. There was no answer. The scary thing was he hadn’t expected one. They could go up to the house and look for him. No, it would be ridiculous to even suggest that.
They all stood looking at each other. What were they to do? It was at that moment that the moon decided to throw off its blanket of clouds. Thick, bright beams of moonlight angled their way to the ground. Billy and his companions could now see the fence covered with its peeling paint. Their eyes followed the rock strewn path through the twisted boughs of the Oaks and Willows that guarded the dead yard.
Finally, their eyes came to rest on the huge master of this bit of acreage. Trenton Manor. It glowered at them from its nest of weeds and brush. Billy looked to the upstairs windows. They stared back at him like two dark eyes. He looked lower to the porch. Its sagging and splintered middle sent a chill straight up his spine. The old porch brought the mansion to an evil life. Trenton Manor was smiling. And Sam Crandall was nowhere to be seen.
The terrified group went screaming down the road like a scared gaggle of geese. Billy made to follow, but stopped for one last glance back. He turned just in time to see one of the front doors was standing slightly ajar. What was that? It was laying in the door opening on the porch floor. It looked…blue. The realization of what it was hit Billy, and he screamed. “SSAAAAMMMMM!” It was then that the blue windbreaker was yanked away into the house. As if struck with great force from the inside, the door banged solidly shut.
Billy ran all the way home.
Sam Crandal was never heard from again. There were all sorts of stories filtering through town, but no one really knew what happened. That is, no one but those who had been there. The wizard and the wolf man knew. So did the zombie. And Billy Jenkins knew, too. None of the boys returned to the house. The truth of that night was now their deepest and darkest secret. Their ritual had been abandoned for good. It had gone with the memory of Sam Crandal.
But Billy knew one thing was for sure. Where ever Sam Crandal was…he was not alone.