There was no stopping what was about to happen. And Amanda Peterson knew it. Even as she watched Jarrad Clark and Kevin Stewart racing toward the back of the yard, she knew it was hopeless.
“No!” Laura Baxter screamed. But it was already too late.
The ball game was over. Amanda had hit a home run. Only nobody cheered. And Amanda didn’t run the bases, or do a victory dance, or even smile. She just stood frozen, watching in horror as the ball sailed over her back fence into the yard of the house that stood at 704 Shadow Lane.
“I’m out of here,” Laura announced, dropping her glove and heading past Amanda toward the gate. Laura always bugged out at the first sign of trouble.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Amanda caught Laura by the back of her shirt as she tried to escape.
“I am not going over there to get that ball,” Laura said, shaking her head adamantly. “I don’t care what you say. I’m not doing it. So don’t even ask me.”
Like anybody would. Cool, calm, and collected were not adjectives that applied to Laura in any situation. Even momentary discomfort was too much for her to bear. That was why Laura walked around with only one ear pierced. She told everybody it was a fashion statement. But Amanda knew the truth. Because Amanda was there when it happened. The first pinch of the piercing gun sent Laura into hysterics. And she practically destroyed the whole Piercing Pagoda trying to escape. Laura was definitely not the kind of person you sent on a life-or-death mission.
“I wasn’t going to ask you to go,” Amanda assured her. “I’m gonna go. I just don’t want you to leave me all by myself in case something terrible happens.” Amanda released her grip on Laura. “I wouldn’t leave you,” she added deliberately. Then she turned and headed for the back fence. Laura followed a moment later, just as Amanda knew she would.
Jarrad and Kevin were peering intently through the gap where a section of the Petersons’ fence had come loose from the post. “It’s not good,” Jarrad said gravely as he stepped back so that Amanda could see for herself.
Peeking through the crack in the fence was like peeking through a crack in time. The property at 704 Shadow Lane was so strange and eerie that it seemed like a horrible hallucination. Even in the middle of the day, it was dark there. The enormous old trees in the back of the yard blocked out the sun completely. And the ancient gray stone house loomed in the shadows, gloomy and foreboding. All of the windows were hung with heavy draperies that were always closed. Except the basement windows, which were covered with grime and thick iron bars. It was easy to imagine that it wasn’t a basement at all, but a dungeon. The only thing scarier than the house at 704 Shadow Lane was the old woman who lived inside it.
“Over there.” Kevin pointed out where Amanda’s ball had landed. “Right next to the shed where she throws the rats after she bites their heads off.”
Amanda shuddered. It was just one of the many rumors about old Mrs. Barns. And while Amanda didn’t want to believe that it was true, she knew enough about Mrs. Barns to be afraid that it just might be.
“If I were you,” Jarrad said, “I’d forget about going in there after that ball.”
“She can’t do that,” Laura shrieked, horrified by the suggestion. “What if Barnsey gets her evil old hands on it? What happens then? Huh?”
“Probably the same thing that happened to that Lizard kid,” Kevin answered.
“What lizard kid?” Jarrad asked.
“The Lizard kid,” Kevin repeated impatiently. “You know, the kid that blew up on his own front yard.”
It was an old story that had been handed down so many times that there was no one around who had actually seen it happen. But all the kids still believed that it had.
“Lu-zard,” Jarrad corrected him.
“Lizard, Lu-zard, who cares what his name is.” Kevin rolled his eyes in exasperation. “The kid’s still dead, isn’t he? And all because Barnsey got her hands on something that belonged to him.”
It was a water pistol. At least that’s the way Amanda had heard it. And while there were several other variations of the story, one thing was certain. There really was a Frederick Luzard. And he really was dead. They’d seen his headstone in the cemetery. He was eleven and a half years old when he died, the same age as Amanda.
“Nobody really knows what happened to that kid,” Jarrad said, trying to be the voice of reason.
“Cut me a break.” Kevin was not about to drop the subject. He was scared to death of Mrs. Barns and took every opportunity to spread the fear around. “Everybody knows what happened to that kid. He burned up just like that!” Kevin snapped his fingers. “Barnsey put a spell on him. And the kid fried.”
“It’s too awful to even think about.” Laura cringed.
“Yeah, well, think about what she did to Todd French!”
Todd French was the only person they actually knew who claimed to have suffered under an evil spell cast on him by Mrs. Barns. It all started the day after one of his brothers tossed his baseball cap onto Barnsey’s property to see if Todd was brave enough to go and get it. But he didn’t go get it. And according to Todd, it was the worst decision of his entire life.
“Barnsey did not put a spell on Todd French,” Jarrad insisted.
“Oh, yeah,” Kevin shot back. “Then how do you explain the twenty-seven stitches he got in his head the day after Barnsey got his cap?”
“It was nine,” Jarrad corrected him. “And he walked into the sliding doors at the supermarket.”
“Because Barnsey made him,” Kevin insisted. “And a week later, she made like six of his teeth fall out.”
“No, the dentist had topulltwo of his molars out to make room for all the rest of those buck teeth he’s got.”
“And what about the bed bugs?” Kevin asked.
Amanda was waiting for the logical explanation. But even Jarrad seemed to be stumped by the bed bugs.
“Todd French does not have a spell on him,” Jarrad finally huffed. “Besides, he’s still alive, isn’t he?”
“For now,” Kevin said ominously, looking directly at Amanda.
“You can’t let Barnsey get her hands on that ball.” Laura pointed out what Amanda already knew.
Amanda wasn’t entirely convinced that Todd French was suffering at the hands of Mrs. Barns. But she didn’t want to take any chances, either. “I’ve got to go get it,” Amanda announced. And before she could change her mind, she started to squeeze through the fence.
“No.” Jarrad stopped her. “I’ll go.”
“Yeah.” Laura jumped on the offer. “Let Jarrad go. He can run faster than anybody.”
Amanda really wanted to let Jarrad go in her place. But she couldn’t. If Jarrad messed up and Barnsey got her hands on that ball, Amanda would be the one to fry for it anyway. “I’ve got to do it,” Amanda told him. “It’s my ball.”
She could tell by the look on Jarrad’s face that he was relieved she’d let him off the hook. Amanda knew Jarrad would have gone in her place if she asked him to. He was always trying to prove to the rest of them that they didn’t have to be so scared of Barnsey. But deep down, she was sure that Jarrad was every bit as scared as she was.
“Just don’t let her catch you,” Kevin warned, “or you’ll end up in her dungeon with that other little girl.”
The dungeon was Barnsey’s basement. It was where she tortured all of her victims—before she finally buried them.
“Why don’t you just shut up?” Jarrad backhanded Kevin. “There is no little girl.”
“Is too,” Kevin insisted. “I know someone who saw her.”
“Oh, really,” Jarrad said. “Who?”
“Todd French,” Kevin answered.
“Again with Todd French?” Jarrad was exasperated. “Todd French can’t even see his own two feet in front of him. Why do you think he has to wear those goggle glasses to school?”
“Well, he saw the little girl,” Kevin declared. “And he said that she was all bloody and stuff.”
Amanda could see the panic on Laura’s face as she turned back toward the fence. If Amanda was going to do this, she had to do it now, before she chickened out.
“Keep your fingers crossed,” Amanda told the rest of them. “And watch out for Barnsey. If she sees me, I’m dead.”
Amanda took a deep breath. As she squeezed through the gap in the fence, she could feel her heart pounding all the way down to her fingertips. She focused her eyes on the ball.Not so far away,she told herself. Amanda was a fast runner, almost as fast as Jarrad. She could be there and back in less than a minute. It was going to be okay. She’d make it just fine.
“Go,” Jarrad urged her, peeking through the gap from the safe side of the fence. “Fast!”
As Amanda tore off, she heard Kevin calling after her. “Watch out for the rats!”
Rats!She’d forgotten all about the rats! But there was no stopping now. Besides, rats—even ones without their heads—were a whole lot less terrifying to Amanda than the thought of Barnsey getting her hands on that ball. Still, she watched the ground carefully, praying that she wouldn’t step on anything—dead or alive.
Amanda made it to the shed. The ball was lying right near the open door, and there were no headless rats piled around it. But as she bent down to grab the ball, she heard something moving around inside the shed.
Amanda’s heart stopped. What if the rats were in there? Or worse yet, what if it was Barnsey? What if Barnsey was waiting to grab her and take her to the dungeon with the other little girl?
Amanda grabbed the ball and took off, running fast enough to break Olympic records. She looked back only once. No one was behind her. Ahead of her, and closing fast, was the fence. She could see the amazement on her friends’ faces. Just a few more feet, and Amanda was home free.
“Move!” Amanda ordered the rest of them as she hit the fence hard. “Get out of the way!”
Jarrad, Kevin, and Laura stepped back to make room for Amanda to squeeze through.
“You did it.” Laura congratulated.
“I can’t believe it!” Kevin chimed in. “You made it!”
But Amanda was only halfway through the fence when she felt icy, skeletal fingers clamp down on to her wrist, as cold and as inescapable as handcuffs.
Copyright © 2011 by Annette Cascone and Gina Cascone