Everyone looked around smirking and ooh-ing to each other. Stephen Baxter had just landed a terrific insult about Parker King in front of the group of pre-pubescent boys crowding the spectacle. Stephen flexed his shoulders, anticipating Parker’s retaliation.
Parker cracked his neck, drew in a breath, and smiled a predatory grin at his adversary, “I dare you to spend the night at the Demon House.” Silence fell among the group in a short gasp as eyes turned from the two bickering children to the decaying manor standing atop the hill.
The house had been around longer than the small town itself. The rumor surrounding it was that it had been the meeting place of some satanic cult where demons were summoned in the basement and human sacrifices were tortured and killed for blood offerings in the various rooms. According to folklore, if one were to visit the hill at the wrong time of night under the first full moon of the month, they would be carried off by a glowing procession of spirits to be mutilated and offered to the dark arts. If the wind was blowing just right, you could hear her screams mixed with the ritual chants of the procession.
The demon house glared back to the boys from its perch atop the hill. It was a silent, malevolent sentry to the town of Idlerock. What was once an elaborate mansion was now a jumbled mess over overgrown weeds, dead trees, missing shingles, mildewed outer walls, and the occasional broken window.
Stephen shook his head. Attempting to show a cool façade, he knew that the eyes gave him away. Stephen could feel the fear in them, probably making his eyes more than twice their normal size.
“Y-you dare me to what?” Stephen asked.
“You heard me, big shot,” Parker shot back- he knew he had delivered the ultimate dare, “I dare you… to spend the night in the Demon House… alone. No friends, no family, just you. Will you accept… or are you too chicken? For this, Parker mocked a caring tone with a dirty tone in his voice”
All eyes returned to the argument happening. More importantly, all eyes were on Stephen. He could feel their piercing stares like spears finding cracks in his armor that were crumbling like a massive avalanche.
Stephen considered his options. To weasel out of the dare would be to admit being a coward for the rest of his life- no one would want to be friends with a chicken shit coward. On the other hand, Stephen (while old enough to realize fact from fiction) could never fully trust the Demon House after he visited the hill on Halloween at nine years old with Joe Millio and Andrew Fearny. The other two could attest that they heard the loud shrieking of a woman being stabbed to death on an altar while feeling a chilling wind of unease blow of them at the same moment. Stephen- as well as everyone else in Idlewood- also knew the story of Peter McCreery.
Peter McCreery was a boy who (were he alive today) would have been about twenty-six years old now. Back in 1967, when McCreery was only twelve took it upon himself to investigate the Demon House equipped with nothing but a flashlight, a walkie-talkie to keep in contact with the group of friends who stayed outside, and a chocolate bar for food rationing. McCreery’s friends would go to school after his death telling how Peter had rambled about shadows following him and unseen hands trying to grab him before going radio silent, causing the other boys to flee home. When the police and EMT’s arrived the next morning to find Peter, they found his mangled corpse at the bottom of the staircase, the cause of death was ruled to have resulted from tripping and falling down the high staircase, but anyone who knew better knew that it had been a demon that had killed Peter McCreery and that his soul was forever trapped in the Demon House.
“Earth to Baxter,” Stephen heard Parker say while fingers snapped in front of his eyes, causing Stephen to come out of his daze. “What’s it gonna be? You gonna spend the night in the Demon House? Or is the baby gonna stay home with mommy?” again he used that belittling, mocking worry tone.
Stephen inhaled his breath and held it to calm down his racing heart, he spoke, “Alright, I’ll do it. What supplies am I allowed?”
“You can have a flashlight, a walkie-talkie, a chocolate bar for food, and one other thing,” The supplies of Peter McCreery plus one other. What was his last object going to be? “A group of us will camp out in the woods by the house to stay in contact and make sure you are there ‘til morning.”
“Deal,” Stephen spoke before the two made a gentleman’s handshake to signify that the bet would be in effect. A group was chosen to be Parker and Michael Blazer with Stephen’s best friends Joe and Andrew. The rest of the kids had other commitments (or so they said) and couldn’t make it.
Stephen walked home from the baseball field with his two buddies, who spent the entire time trying to talk their friend out of staying at the Demon House tonight. Offering anything from horror movies in the basement at Andrew’s house (“My mom will make us s’mores and lemonade”) to Joe asking if Stephen would prefer for Joe to convince Mr. Millio to take the three of them to his fishing spot for the weekend. Stephen declined all offers and his friends accepted- they too knew that when a man shook another’s hand, he didn’t go back on that promise and that being labeled a chicken was a death sentence.
The five eleven-year-olds convened and met in the woods to the side of the Demon House. Stephen turned out his pockets to show that he only had the allowed items in his inventory. A half-melted chocolate bar from his hidden candy stash in the back of his closet, a strong handheld flashlight taken from his dad’s toolbox, a walkie-talkie that was connected to the one the other four would have at camp, and his extra item- a small, plastic cross from his model set of Dracula in a graveyard.
“What the hell is this gonna do for you, wuss?” Parker asked when he saw the cross in Stephen’s hand. The question went unanswered. Though not from a religious household, Stephen just prayed that it would be enough to keep him safe.
Stephen took one last look up at the moon before approaching the front porch of the Demon House. The moon was waxing, not quite full, maybe that would mean that he would not have to worry about being carted off by a ghastly cult at least he figured. In the distance, he heard Parker tell the group, “Alright, come on pussies, let’s set up camp and wait for Baxter to piss his pants and come crying to us,” Stephen- as well as the rest of the kids in his grade- loathed Parker.
Creeeeak the floorboards sounded with each step as Stephen came to the front door. It was a heavy entrance that was stuck to the doorframe. Stephen had to push the door with his shoulder and all his might behind it to get the thing open them slam it to ensure the door would close, which it did with a horrible bang and splintering sound.
The inside of the house was spooky. The smell of mold overtook the senses as floating dust particles glided over moth-eaten furniture and portraits of people long dead seemingly cast their eyes in whatever direction Stephen walked. The carpeting was covered in filth and dirt in areas where it didn’t expose the wood flooring beneath. Wallpaper stripped down the walls in confetti that was once white but now had turned to a sickly greenish-yellow color where mold had not taken over. The creepiest part of the place was the feeling in the air about the house.
Whereas Stephen expected that musty, dead feeling of a place long abandoned, the air had more of an electric feel. He felt like he could almost feel the air around him if he concentrated hard enough on it. The feeling made the hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention.
What was that? It almost sounded like a voice? Peter McCreery? Or something far more sinister? His steps became less confident and shaky as the radio voiced, “Hey, dummy. You there? Or have the demons taken you yet?” Parker’s staticky voice.
“I’m here, just got to the staircase where Peter McCreery… Uhm,” Stephen’s voice trailed off. The staircase was massive. It went up at least twenty feet- no wonder McCreery was killed by it. Stephen noticed something brownish red in splotches on a few stairs and at the bottom where the boy’s body would have been found- blood? He told his radio audience about this.
“Hey, Baxter five bucks to lick it,” Parker said in a sardonic voice. “Nah, you’d probably like it too much anyway, freak. Hey, that cross helping keep the big, bad monsters away?”
Stephen ignored the taunts of the pseudo-bully. He tried to imagine what was going on at the camp. Most likely, Parker was bragging about how he had had sex with one of his cousins or about how he steals his mother’s liquor when she’s working late at the bars. He had to give the kid some slack, Parker lived in a trashed trailer with his mom- who usually wasn’t home- still, Parker didn’t have to be so vulgar and horrible all the time because of it. He ascended the stairs.
The steps made hallow thumps as he went up them until he was on the second floor. This was a somewhat better floor. Rats and bird nests occupied just about every corner they could exist in while holes in the roof exposed open sky, tiny stars being visible through them, but it wasn’t as moldy up here at least. Stephen decided the last door down the upstairs hall would be a good first room to investigate.
This room was a library or study of some sort. Candles stood melted away to portions of their original size as books lined the shelves on the walls covering subjects from medicine and astronomy to occultism and witches. Lighting the candles around the desk with an ancient matchbox on close by, he sat at the desk in the middle of the room and opened the volume that was already sitting on the surface. It was a record of some sort.
The book listed the names of people and their birth and death dates, most were normal, but some had symbols around their names. Stephen realized that each of these names with signs had lived a lot longer than normal. He was just reading Mary Warren, October 23, 1773- December 4, 1892, when Joe’s voice sounded from the radio.
“Hey, Steve, everything good so far? It’s about eleven- which means you’ve been in there for almost two hours now.”
Stephen unhooked the walkie-talkie from his belt and pressed the button to speak as a rat scurried by somewhere.
“Yeah, I’m good, I just-“ he trailed off. It felt like someone had just touched his head. He jumped from the desk, causing the chair to shoot back behind him and collide into a few of the burning candles, they each fell. Stephen took a look behind him, he smelled smoke. It looked as if a hooded figure stood in the corner of the library facing him. That was just the evidence he needed to leave this room with a heart now beating like a drum against his chest bone.
He ran out of the study and back down the stairs until he was back at the front entrance. He was just about to call the camp and tell them what had happened before exiting out the front door when Parker’s mocking voice started taunting in his head. No, he was going to stay here and not give in to one little spook. No one would believe him anyway.
“Stephen, are you there? Do you want to come out or us to come to get you?” Joe’s voice again sounded slightly panicked.
“No, no. I’m good. Sorry, l-lost connection there for a moment and had to get to a place with better connection.”
“Alright, well, we are here if you need it.”
Stephen thanked Joe as Parker interrupted the chat to say some profane words loudly into the walkie-talkie. His nerves calmed a bit now, he decided to explore further. Stomach growling, Stephen figured it was time for dinner. He at the chocolate crunch bar wolfishly, licking the melted bits off the wrapper. He was just about to throw the trash on the ground before settling on crumbling the paper into his pocket to throw away later. The next-door he decided on was the basement.
Cobwebs hung low from the wooden rafters as the child descended into the dark, dank sub room. It smelled like sitting water and dead animals, which is what he found when he shined the light around the room. The center contained a podium with papers written in a language Stephen didn’t recognize and an altar covered in the dried bloodstains of either human or animal- for peace of mind, Stephen decided on animal. The podium and altar sat in front of a clearing on the floor, which had a white symbol similar to the ones around the names of the people with long lives from the book upstairs.
This must have been the symbol of the cult and where they summoned the demons, Stephen thought. A nauseous feeling took over, causing him to want to spill the candy from his stomach right after eating it. Maybe it was time to just leave the basement too. He could just spend the rest of the time by the front door, no one would know anyway.
Turning around the flashlight caught three more hooded figures standing just to the side of the stairs causing Stephen to go still fear.
“Are you trying to take our home away from us?” One of the hooded people said in a man’s voice. The voice was odd, horrible. Like he had not had water in a long time after a trek through the desert. It was like two pieces of sandpaper rubbing together.
Stephen didn’t reply. He could do nothing but stand and look at the figures, heart rate reaching dangerous levels.
“You disrespect our home and now you refuse to talk to us when questioned? Have you no manners, child?” the voice asked again.
No reply. The figures weren’t standing Stephen noticed, not really, their concealed feet seemed to hover above the ground a few inches.
“Well, I guess we will have to do what we did to the last boy who trespassed on our property. Our gods haven’t eaten in so long and they are getting restless with hunger.” The leading figured rushed toward Stephen, who dropped the flashlight that shattered on the ground. He bolted toward the stairs without thinking, racing up the steps as they buckled and cracked beneath him. He reached the first floor again and slammed the door, only, the door hit his knee with the force of all the strength put into the action. Blood rushed down his jeans as he fell to the floor with tears leaking from his eyes. Stephen didn’t know if he would be able to walk on it.
“You won’t get away, Stephen. You belong to us now.”
He tried crawling away from the door to the basement, his right leg next to useless. The cross! He remembered the cross and held it out in front of him. Stephen pictured himself looking like Van Helsing holding a crucifix to Dracula to defeat the old vampire. Instead of a scream, Stephen heard maniacal laughter.
"You really think some plastic toy is going to ward us off, Stephen?” The voice seemed to come from all around, the walls, the floors, the paintings, “It is easiest if you just accept it.”
Smoke billowed from cracks in the walls and ceiling. Was it the demons and ghosts going after him?
“…burning down. Get out!” Joe’s voice called from somewhere. Why did he sound so odd? Like static in his voice. “I repeat. The house is burning down! Get out now!”
“Hey! Hey!” A voice that was unfamiliar, but childish said next to Stephen as his vision got darker, “Hey, open your eyes, boy. We need to get you out of here.”
Stephen saw a kid wearing a faded red t-shirt with dirty jeans and longer hair looking down at him, he looked about twelve or thirteen. What was odd was that Stephen could see right through the child as he glowed, the other figures didn’t glow in here.
‘Come on! Pretty soon this whole place is going to come crashing down. UP!” Stephen found the strength somewhere to lift himself to his knees. He was starting to feel a really hot sensation from somewhere as he limp-ran to the front door with the transparent boy encouraging him as he fought something. The door wouldn’t budge.
“Go out the window! Now, boy! Now!”
Stephen used his last remaining strength to crash through the window by the door.
“Nooooo!” the harsh voice screamed as Stephen hit the moist grass.
“Good job, boy,” The other kid said from somewhere, “I’m free!”
The house burned down in front of Stephen, crashing in horrible cracks and booms as the four kids from the camp came rushing toward Stephen to help him up. They helped him away from the scene as the fire became another folklore for the fires of hell retaking the house.