“…and that was when, BANG! The door slammed shut behind them!”
My sister Shelly’s eyes were the size of silver dollars. Teddi was sitting up in her sleeping bag, zipped up all the way; only her face from the nose up was visible. I smiled discretely at her. I brought the flashlight up close to my chin, casting weird shadows across my face in the blue dome tent.
“What happened then?” Shelly said in a tiny voice.
“They banged and banged on the old door, but it wouldn’t open,” I dropped my voice for effect. “And suddenly, they heard someone shout, ‘Who dares to enter Witch Annie’s home!?’” Teddi momentarily buried her face completely in the sleeping bag. When she pulled her head out again, her blonde hair was poking every direction.
“Then what happened?” She squeaked.
“Nobody knows- some say the kids broke out one of the windows and got away. Some say Witch Annie cooked them in a big pot and fed them to her rats. And some say that to this day, you can still hear their screams…”
A neighbor’s dog barked all of a sudden, and all three of us cried out; I coughed, hoping desperately that Teddi hadn’t heard me scream like a girl. She’d crawled entirely into her sleeping bag, though- no chance of that. Good. For a moment, the three of us looked warily around at each other. Crickets and frogs chirped and sang in the summer night outside. It had to have been after midnight.
“I don’t think I can go to sleep,” Shelly said at length. “Tell us another story Woody.”
“I’ve told you three already,” I said.
“So? We like them.”
I grinned. “You like getting scared out of your brains?”
Teddi’s head bobbed insider her sleeping bag.
“Okay, fine- but I want another oatmeal pie.”
“Ooh, me too,” Teddi chimed in, the fear of the last story forgotten.
Shelly began digging through the provisions we’d stashed in the tent; flashlights, sleeping bags, pillows, blankets , Shelly’s stuffed bear (that’s nine-year-olds for you), some magazines Teddi had brought along with that vampire guy on the front… but no oatmeal pies. Shelly looked up at me, her face ashen. “I can’t find them.”
“What do you mean, they’ve got to be here…” I paused. “…unless we left them outside.”
As if on cue, the neighbor’s dog began to howl. A cold chill ran beneath my Fallout Boy t-shirt.
“…well, go on, go get them.” Shelly said to me, after a few moments of nervous glancing.
“Me!?! Why should I go get them?”
“You’re the boy!” Shelly said, as if it was obvious to anyone with a brain. “And the oldest!”
I was about to point out that I was only a few months older than Teddi, because I’d be turning eleven in November, but I couldn’t; if I did, I’d look like a wimp. On the other hand, if I didn’t, I’d have to go out there. By myself. In the dark.
Sometimes, being a boy sucks.
“Okay, okay,” I said. Teddi looked relieved; evidently, she was afraid I was going to send her outside after the snacks. I unzipped the nylon tent wall and peaked out; it was pitch black outside, except for the glow of the porch light from mom and dad’s house, maybe a hundred yards away. The grass glimmered with fallen dew.
We’d pitched the tent just past the edge of the backyard, in a copse of trees at the foot of a forest that my family at least partly owned. Our campfire circle still smoked, but the fire had long since gone out. I looked, but didn’t see the cakes anywhere.
I reached back into the tent, grabbed a flashlight, and climbed barefoot out of the tent, stalking the twenty or so feet to the cooling ring of stones. It’s only a story, it’s only a story, Witch Annie isn’t real, it’s only a story, I told myself. Across the hollow, the neighbor’s dog began to howl again, and I froze. I covered up the moment of fear by looking around the camp chairs for the box of cakes.
“Do you see them?” Teddi called in a shouted whisper from the tent.
“No.” I hissed back. “Are you sure they’re not in the tent?”
“Positive!” Came Shelly’s voice.
“Maybe they’re at the picnic table,” Teddi said.
My heart dropped into my stomach. I turned around.
The picnic table was a full thirty feet behind the tent, farther into the woods. Dad had clear cut the area last summer, so we could have a place to sit when we had family barbecues. But now, the picnic table didn’t look like anywhere I wanted to sit and eat watermelon. In the inky shadows behind the blue nylon dome, I couldn’t even make out the table.
I could’ve gone back into the tent, said no oatmeal pies tonight girls, told them another story, and let that be the end of it. Heck, after another story, they’d be so scared that they probably would’ve forgotten all about the cakes.
Then I looked back at the tent, and the blonde haired, blue eyed Teddi peering at me from the door flap. Her eyes were wide; she was watching to see what I was going to do next.
I couldn’t chicken out. Not in front of her.
I gripped the flashlight so hard that my hand hurt as I trudged past the tent, well out of the meager light cast by the house. The grass was wet, cold and slippery under my feet, and it was taller here; my mind conjured up hideous, gross things underfoot that I crushed with each step. I shuddered, and was thankful that I was past the tent now.
Until I heard the window unzip; I knew they were watching me.
There was the table, twenty feet away now. Something moved in the woods to my right, a shudder of trees and brush. I dashed to the table.
Five feet from it, my flashlight went out.
The girls screamed, and the hair on the back of my neck shot straight up; I didn’t stop running until I collided with the table, knocking the wind out of my lungs. I doubled over against the wood, my hands slapping the uneven tabletop- and my fingertips brushed flimsy cardboard, damp from the dew. I grabbed the box of oatmeal pies and turned, my feet slipping and sliding on the wet grass.
Whatever was in the woods shifted again, just as my feet slipped out from under me and I landed flat on my stomach on the damp ground, right on top of the box of cakes. My skin prickled, and I imagined all manner of monsters and vermin climbing up and over my back. I rolled and squirmed and swatted as Shelly and Teddi continued to scream from the open tent window.
Finally I made my way to my feet, squashed box of oatmeal pies tucked against me like a football. More noise from the woods, on both sides of the clearing this time; the dog howled, and combined with the shuddering of the underbrush around me, I pictured an entire pack of hell hounds, or vicious monsters with huge claws and teeth and matted fur, or Witch Annie herself come to drag me back to her old haunted house.
An alarm in my brain rang furiously, my instincts screaming at me to run; I could see the silhouette of the tent before me, a black half-circle protruding from the ground like some horrible blister. I ran, and I could feel the breath of monsters and beasts on the back of my neck. I didn’t realize I was screaming until I’d reached the tent and clambered back inside, yanking the zipper closed as soon as my feet cleared the nylon door.
We all sat in silence in the tent; the only sound was our heaving breath, ragged from fear. My shirt and jeans were damp and covered in mud and grass clippings. The box of pies was on my lap, wet and crushed but recovered; in silence I turned the box upside down and dumped the cakes onto the tent floor. I took one and, without a word, tore the cellophane wrapper off of it and took a bite. It was the sweetest thing I’d ever eaten.
Teddi watched me with huge blue eyes, wonder on her pretty face.
It had totally been worth it.