Every kid knew the house at the end of the block was haunted. The windows were dark and dirty, with dusty curtains of an uncertain color covering the inside of the glass. One of the upper windows had been smashed years ago, and the front porch was caved in, the steps now swallowed by long-overgrown grass.
Sarah knew she’d get in trouble if she got caught going in there, and she knew she’d get in even more trouble for bringing her little brother with her, especially since Mom and Dad were both working and she was supposed to be babysitting. But Valerie had dared her in front of everyone — including Terry, whom she’d had a crush on since third grade — to go into the haunted house through the broken back door and bring something to school tomorrow to prove it.
Everyone in the neighborhood was a lookout when things like this went down. The Peterson twins jumped rope on the sidewalk out front, but kept an eye on passing cars. Julia and Bobby wandered around the front yard picking dandelions, but they would whistle if a grown-up came out of the house next door. And James, who lived behind the haunted house and constantly told stories about ghosts in the back windows, was stationed in his treehouse just in case someone managed to sneak by the other sentries.
So here Sarah was at the back of the rundown house. She had to do it, and she had to do it now, before she got caught.
“Just five minutes,” she told herself again. “Get in, find something, get out. I can do that.”
“I can do that,” Sam repeated at her side.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Imitation is a form of flattery, you know,” she told him.
“Imitation is a form of a flattery,” Sam parroted back, but before Sarah could tell him to knock it off, he bounded up the steps and disappeared into the dark, musty house.
“Sam!” Sarah exclaimed, annoyed. She followed him at once.
The haunted house was filled with abandoned junk and animal mess. She stepped into the kitchen to find the floor was buried under old newspapers. Cracked and filthy dishes littered the countertops. The living room wasn’t much better. Animals — probably raccoons — had nested in the dust-coated sofa, and there was lint and bits of fluff all over the floor.
Sarah shivered. It was eerily quiet, the faint sounds of her friends outside seeming miles away. “Sam?” she called, looking around for him. She caught sight of an old rocking horse tucked in one corner of the living room. Was it moving? “Sam!”
“Over here,” said Sam from around the corner.
Sarah followed his voice to find him at the foot of the stairs. The wide bannister must have been beautiful in its day, but now the varnish was peeling, the wood chipped like it’d been gnawed.
“I want to know what’s up there,” Sam said.
“No, I don’t think—” Sarah began, but Sam was already climbing. Sarah blew out a sigh and followed, because if a ghost killed her little brother, she’d have a lot of explaining to do.
Sam went through the first door off the main hall. “Oh, cool,” he said, his voice echoing around the empty space. “Check this out!”
Sarah entered the small room after him and found something terrifying: a doll in the centre of the warped wood floor with a black circle painted around it. At the doll’s feet was a dark stain that looked suspiciously like blood.
Sarah felt like there was ice in her veins. “We have to get out of here,” she said.
“But you still have to get the thing,” Sam protested, getting closer to the doll.
“What thing?” Sarah asked. She grabbed the back of Sam’s shirt to stop him from getting closer to the doll and the blood. “No, don’t touch that.”
“Why not?” asked Sam, trying to break free.
“Because I said so,” Sarah told him. She was too freaked out to come up with something better.
Luckily, with Sarah’s oldest sibling clout, it worked. “Okay, fine,” Sam huffed. “But I’m gonna keep looking. Bet you I’ll find something cooler than you.”
“No you won’t,” Sarah said automatically, even as she followed him down the hall.
The next room was a bathroom, and it was so gross that even Sam didn’t go near it, but after that they found a big bedroom, with a stained mattress leaning against one wall and a dilapidated dresser with a flowery book on top. As soon as Sarah saw that, she knew what it was — a photo album as big and as old as her grandmother’s. That would be the perfect thing to complete her dare.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t get to it. The floor was rotted. “Damn,” she said under her breath.
“Swear jar,” Sam announced gleefully. “Give me a quarter now and I won’t tell Dad.”
Sarah groaned, but she dug a quarter out her pocket anyway, bidding farewell to the gumballs she was going to get on Saturday. “This is a dumb arrangement,” she grumbled.
“You just say that cause you swear a lot,” Sam said.
“Yeah, well, wait till you’re thirteen, you’ll catch up.”
Uh huh, Sarah stopped herself from saying. It was pointless and immature and a waste of time that they didn’t have.
“Come on,” she said, turning back towards the stairs. “Let’s just get something from the kitchen.”
“But this is better,” Sam said. “I bet there’s family pictures in front of the house like Mom makes us do. You can prove it’s from here.”
Sarah paused. She had to admit that was a good point.
“I’ll go,” said Sam, taking a step forward.
Sarah stopped him with her hand on his shirt again. “It’s my dare, I’ll go.”
“I’m smaller,” Sam pointed out.
“Well, I’m older,” said Sarah, playing the trump card.
“Fine,” Sam huffed, and he moved back.
Sarah stepped carefully toward the rotted patch of floor, testing each spot with her foot before trusting it with her weight. It creaked ominously, but it held. She edged around the gap in the floor and made it to the dresser.
She grabbed the photo album and retraced her steps. She was so close to having achieved her goal that she started to speed up — and this proved to be a mistake. She was only two feet from Sam when the floor gave a loud crack and gave way.
Sarah screamed, the photo album went flying, but she was lucky — her foot fell onto a support beam. Just an inch over and she’d be on the first floor, probably with a broken neck.
“Sarah!” Sam yelled.
He moved forward, but Sarah yelled, “Stop!” The floor was cracking again, he’d fall.
“Go,” she said. “Get help. I can’t move without breaking it more.”
Sam nodded once and turned away, but then he came back.
“What are you doing?” Sarah demanded. “Go!”
But Sam didn’t listen. He dropped to his hands and knees and crawled forward until he was able to grab Sarah’ arms.
The floor cracked again. Sarah yelped, but Sam didn’t flinch. He started pulling, just enough to take some of her weight, so she could find her footing. She pushed up against the beam, crawling up on her knees on the edge of the hole. The floorboards creaked and shivered, but they held.
“I got you,” said Sam, crawling backwards as Sarah moved forward. “Come on, let’s go slow.”
“Okay,” Sarah whimpered, holding onto him for dear life.
Another few careful movements, and Sarah was free. She and Sam collapsed in the hall, and Sarah started to cry.
“It’s okay,” Sam said, patting her arm. “It’s okay, Sarah.”
Sarah nodded and gave her brother a tight hug. “Let’s never do that again,” she said shakily.
“Yeah,” Sam laughed — quiet and almost giddy.
Sarah pulled back, and that was when she noticed the blood on Sam’s knee.
“You’re hurt, she said.
Sam looked down, and his face went a little grey. “It was a wire,” he said. “Is it bad?”
Sarah leaned in close for a better look and grimaced. “It’s pretty bad. Come on.”
She carried Sam out of the house and straight home. Her friends swarmed her at the door, asking questions that Sarah didn’t answer. Then one of them saw the blood and backed off.
That very night the whispers started. While Sam got three stitches and a tetanus shot, and Sarah got grounded for six weeks, the whole school buzzed with the story: Sarah Wilson saved her little brother from a ghost.
And Sam, bless him, never once corrected them.