The taunt had burned. It implied sissy, scaredy-cat, Mommy’s boy. No way he would stand for that!
And now, Mike stood astride his bike in front of the old house – he had told his mother he was sleeping over at Ryan’s. Bits of paint stuck stubbornly to the exterior, a few boards hung haphazardly over the windows. A large tree, mostly dead, stood guard at one corner. Mike placed his bike carefully against a wall – normally he let it drop where he was but this was no “normal” place – and mounted the half-rotten steps. He pushed open the door. The hinges squealed. A cobweb clung to his face as he walked in. He swatted it away, hands flailing against the sticky gossamer. He shut the door, heart pounding, breath coming short and fast.
It’s only an old house, he told himself.
* * *
It wasn’t any old house. The farmhouse stood on a hilltop, just off the bike path that used to be the railroad until the trains stopped coming and the track was torn up. Everyone said it was haunted. Rumours abounded about ghosts, flickering lights, even murder – or was it suicide? – way back when. They talked about it in whispers, imagined a jilted lover, a betrayed husband – or was it the wife who was betrayed? No matter. No boy went near the place until that fateful morning when Mike declared it all hogwash.
“Then prove it!” retorted Ryan.
“Yah, prove it!” Noah and Takoda echoed.
“Dare you! Dare you! Double-double-dare you!” they chanted in unison.
“How do you expect me to prove it?” Mike asked.
The boys looked at each other, grinned. “Sleep there,” Ryan said.
“Yah, sleep there. Betcha you’re too chicken,” Noah said. He flapped his arms and made clucking noises. The others followed suit.
“Am not! I’ll do it. You’re the ones who are chicken. I’ll prove there are no ghosts there.”
* * *
Mike stood in the hallway of the deserted house, his pack filled with his sleeping bag and foamy in one hand, flashlight clutched in the other.
He heard nothing. He walked towards the stairs, the floor protesting lightly with each footstep. Moonlight shone dimly through a dusty window at the top of the stairs. Dust motes floated in the light.
An owl hooted. Mike jumped, dropped the flashlight. It clattered and rolled along the floor and fell through an opening he hadn’t seen. It bounced down unseen stairs, making a dreadful racket, then silence.
Mike crept slowly to the edge of the opening, peered down, saw only darkness. The flashlight had gone out. The moon was now his only source of light.
He walked carefully around the opening and stood at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the second storey. The bedroom – That Bedroom – was where he would spend the night.
He took a deep breath and began to climb.
* * *
“Mother, someone’s in my bed!”
Mike awoke with a start. What? He shifted his weight, heard bed springs creak. Double what!
Mike was indeed in a bed, not his sleeping bag. He looked around the room. A small chest of drawers with a jug and basin on top, clothes hung on hooks on the wall and a small chair in a corner filled the room. A boy, about the size of Mike’s kid brother, so maybe six? stood in the doorway.
“Mother, there’s a boy in my bed.”
Mike saw a light, heard shuffled steps come down the hallway. A man, wearing what looked like a long white shirt, stood beside the boy.
“Go to bed, Nathaniel. You’re seeing things. It’s just the fever.”
“No, there’s a boy in my bed. He wasn’t there when I went to the commode, and now he’s there,” the boy – Nathaniel – insisted.
The man – Nathaniel’s father? – raised a coal oil lantern. A crack in the chimney split the flame; it danced devilishly back and forth.
“See, there’s no one there. Here, let me tuck you back into bed. You must sleep if you are to recover.”
The man took Nathaniel by the hand and led him to the bed. Mike shrunk as far to one side as he dared without falling off. Nathaniel stood at the side of the bed, hesitated, then reluctantly crawled in. His father tucked the bed clothes around him. “Sleep well,” he said.
Mike had caught a glimpse the boy’s face in the flickering light. Red spots covered it as if someone had attacked it with a red felt marker.
“Who are you? Are you Isaac’s ghost?” Nathaniel asked.
“He was my older brother. He died two years ago.”
“What happened to him?”
“He died of the consumption.”
“His lungs. He coughed and coughed and it was all bloody and he kept getting weaker and paler and then he died and I miss him he was good and kind to me.” Nathaniel started to cry.
Mike didn’t know what to say or do for a bit, then he put his arm around Nathaniel. He thought of his own kid brother. No, you couldn’t say that Mike was kind to him; he often teased his brother mercilessly – he had red hair.
“What’s on your face?” Mike asked.
“Does it hurt?”
“No, I just feel really hot.”
Mike could feel how hot Nathaniel was.
“Everyone in school is sick. And I think Suzanna has gone to heaven. I heard my parents talking yesterday.”
Nathaniel turned to Mike. “I hope I don’t die, but if I do, Reverend Smithson says I’ll go to heaven and that’s okay because then I will see Isaac again.”
“Nah, you won’t die, you’re tough,” Mike said, but then, what did he know?
“Go to sleep like your father said. You’ll feel better when you wake up.”
Nathaniel closed his eyes and soon his breathing eased into sleep. Mike felt sleepy, too, and as he drifted off, he wondered, “Is this for real? Or am I only dreaming this?”
To be continued . . .