I don’t know about the rest of the writing world, but this Marauder has been dealing with a severe case of writer’s block with this story. Perhaps it has something to do with the lost little kitten she found outside (and brought inside, much to the chagrin of her current cat). Or perhaps it has to do with that other story, the one that she has been diving back into and can’t stop thinking about.
Either way, here is the first installment of my horror story. I may be adding to it at future dates, so keep checking in!
The plot is ready, but the writing, well. Ahem. It’s . . . there?
Either way, as usual . . .
The Emperor’s Dragon
By M.G. Knight
Petersville is a small town full of small secrets that never stay secret for long. Everyone is always in everyone else’s business; Mrs. Slinksy, for instance, knows right away whenever Abigail Smith has been drinking underage—which is often, by the way. The sheriff gets called out, but because he knows Abigail’s parents, she never gets cited. Then there are the constant rumors floating around; rumors about who is cheating on who, who may or may not be pregnant, who flunked his chemistry test, or who is too chicken to go into the town’s most haunted restaurant.
So, needless to say, I was sure my parents would hear about this within the week.
I stomped my feet in the thirty-some degree weather, trying not to look too long at the crumbling building, the blackened remains of what was once the Emperor’s Dragon. It was uncomfortable, creepy even—especially with the painted door god staring out towards me, as if he was hoping I would be stupid enough to go in there.
Really, if I thought hard about it, my own stupidity was why I got into this predicament in the first place. Because of Karla—or, at least, because of those low-cut shirts she wears all the time. Who can say no to two double Ds when they are asking so politely that you join them for an entire night—even if it’s in a haunted house?
Definitely not me. Trust me, I tried.
So I’m here. And if I back out, I’ll be the laughingstock for the rest of eighth grade. And if any of you have ever been in middle school, becoming the wimp who couldn’t step foot into an abandoned restaurant is a ticket to loserdom for the rest of your before-college educational career.
So, yeah. I’m here. On Halloween of all nights. Waiting. But maybe I’ll get lucky. Just maybe I’ll get that first kiss from the lips of the most beautiful girl in middle school.
I just have to think about anything except—
“Ghosts!” Andrew’s voice muddied its way down the dead-end street, pushing through the fog that had felt important enough to add to the already-demonic-looking setting.
I felt my heart fall somewhere down into my intestinal region. What was Andrew doing here?
“Fine, Andrew. Just keep your voice down. It’s way after curfew.” And that bossy voice. That couldn’t be Clarissa, the snottiest girl in the junior high? Why would the perfect-A student and Andrew, the school’s best reporter, risk getting into trouble?
And then came Karla’s voice, the most beautiful voice that ever existed, slinking its way down the wet sidewalks and past the leafless trees as three silhouettes came into view. “So you guys really are okay, right? I don’t want to have to babysit you.”
“Plu-ease.” Clarissa. “I’m hoping we get to see something. It would totally prove Max Bruin’s quantum theory of ghosts.”
I shook my head as they passed under the only streetlamp on the entirety of Blind Street and into the darkness that made up the latter half. The trees chased them as they continued underneath their branches all the way up to where I stood, shrouded in darkness just in case the town sheriff happened by. Clarissa and Karla waved frantically as they approached; I gave a half-hearted gesture while, inside, I threw a mental tantrum.
So much for a night of kissing.
“Hey, Luke.” Andrew went in for a high five, which I reluctantly returned. He had never gotten the memo that high-fives were cool like two centuries ago.
“Hi,” Clarissa said. She sounded breathier than normal, but I couldn’t understand why. She lived like five minutes from here; I knew because she walked the same path to school as me. “So are you ready for this?”
“You don’t sound scared,” Andrew commented, looking impressed. I guessed to the student reporter it would look brave. Good thing he didn’t realize how much my bladder seemed to suddenly want to release itself.
“Of course he’s not scared.” Karla smiled. It made me feel the same way I did just before a big game. “He’s way too cool for that.” Right.
Clarissa pushed her enormous glasses up higher onto her nose. “So. Are we going to do this?”
We all turned to survey the two story building—the only building left on the entire street. Just ten years ago it had been one of the busiest restaurants in town, but now it was nothing more than a mummified version of its former self, warped and twisted by time. The windows were shuttered closed; an old, gnarled tree had grown through part of the second story, snaking in through a window above one of the bright green overhangs and out through a crumbled wall. The once red paint was chipped and worn, making the eyes of the door god all the more bright and terrifying as he surveyed us from beneath his helmet. A sign hung lopsidedly off a holder in the front yard, and even the fancy, golden lettering that had once read “The Emperor’s Dragon” was barely legible.
“They say two hours is the longest anyone’s lasted,” Andrew said quietly. The fog from his breath disappeared into the night.
“Then we’ll just have to last three,” Karla pointed out as though it was simple.
“Or at least one to get to the witching hour. That’s when ghosts are most active. Personally, I think it’s just a result of the brain being tired at that hour. I am so glad we don’t have school tomorrow.” Clarissa shuddered as she looked at the building. Everyone ignored her.
“Let’s go,” I said. We took one last look down the long, lonely street. And then we walked toward the entrance.
“Oh, God, it’s dusty.” Karla put her hands over her nose. I almost asked her what she had expected (judging by the Aeropostale shirt and tight, expensive-looking jeans not this), but I kept my mouth shut. Maybe she was just allergic or something.
The only light came from our phones, held out and open to the flashlight app. I had an actual flashlight in the back of my jeans pocket, but it felt stupid to use it when everyone else had their cells.
“Wow. This must be the entrance.” The floor was old and wooden. It was covered in dust so thick I was positive the cuffs of my jeans were already covered. The restaurant was eerily silent. You would think there would be noises; the sounds of wind hitting the building or the creak and whine of trees outside. But there was nothing.
Clarissa shone her flashlight over a set of red and gold partisan doors, decorated with golden dragons and fake frosted glass. I didn’t take my flashlight from them even as everyone else moved on. They were meant to look inviting, but something about them gave me the creeps. It didn’t help that the light from our phones only shined about a foot behind the opening.
Or that I could have sworn I saw something move.
I quickly turned the squeak that had welled up in my throat into a manly cough.
Meanwhile, Andrew was snapping about a billion pictures on his phone and Karla had a notepad out and ready.
“I didn’t realize this was a school field trip,” I said to break the tension. I hadn’t taken my eyes from where I thought I had seen that movement, that slight movement of something human-shaped just beyond the light from my phone.
But the mind played tricks at night. Everyone knew that. Everyone with a brain, at least.
Clarissa turned her flashlight on me. “So sorry if I want to be the first person to prove the theory that ghosts are simply emotions pushing their way into the quantum universe from observers.”
Andrew blinked several times. “Yeah, what she said.”
“You guys are such nerds,” Karla said, disdainfully flicking a beetle off of her shoulder.
Clarissa put a hand on her hip. “Like it or not, Miss Student Council President, but I have big plans for when I become a quantum physicist. Or biological engineer. I still haven’t decided.” She glanced at Kayla’s hand on my arm and quickly turned away. “And I’m sure Andrew would love to be the first to provide hard, scientific evidence that ghosts exist. Even if I don’t believe in the conventional idea of them one bit.”
Andrew blinked again, the red button on his phone indicating he was video recording.
Clarissa’s assurance made me feel better. Because I still hadn’t moved my flashlight.
“Come on, let’s go deeper.” Karla pulled me toward the partitioned doors. Sweat gathered on my palms as the light slowly crept up a long-forgotten fountain in the center of the room and—
I had never been so happy to see plain old oriental wallpaper in all my life.
“This was where they greeted everyone,” Andrew said matter-of-factly.
“Why did they get shut down again, Andrew?” Karla hadn’t let go of my arm. It made me feel stronger, like I was somehow more of a man when she clung to me like that.
“No one knows the specifics—or, at least, no one I’ve talked to. It’s like there’s a big secret or something. All I could dig up is that the owner was going to shut down the restaurant because she was running out of money. I guess she had a gambling problem or something. She was just a single mom with two kids.”
We continued to walk as Andrew told us the story, our lights illuminating a door to the eating area. Countless tables and chairs stood, ready for visitors and hidden away behind tattered dresses that had once been tablecloths.
“Anyway,” Andrew continued. Clarissa scrabbled furiously away in her notebook. “She somehow continued to keep the restaurant open for two years after that. But then the police got involved. The next day, she drowned her ten-year-old and slit her own throat. No one ever found out what happened to the youngest.” We had made it even deeper into the building now; I hadn’t realized how large it was from the outside. This was at least the third dining room we had gone through.
I swallowed, and Karla held my arm tighter. “Do they know how old the youngest was?”
Andrew’s freckled face was pale under the glow of the phone. “Four.”
The scratch of Clarissa’s pen had stopped.
That was when we heard it for the first time. I faint scratching, like a cat pawing at a door. Karla squeaked. Everyone inched closer together, their lights shining in a circle.
I swallowed again. “It was probably just a mouse.” I said it so quietly I was sure it didn’t sound convincing.
“Yeah,” Andrew said, so close to me that we were practically holding hands. “Or a bird or something.”
We heard it again, this time accompanied by a windy, raspy voice. Get out.
Goosebumps erupted up my body, sprouting all the way from my ankles up to my wrists. We froze.
Far in the corner, the human-shaped something I had seen before moved, darting just beyond the lights. Clarissa screamed.
We all turned for the exit at exactly the same time, pushing and pulling on one another. I tried to corral everyone, keeping them together and stopping them from trampling Andrew, who was in the lead. Really, though, I wanted desperately to make sure no one would leave me behind.
But as the lights bounced up and down, right and left, they landed on something in front of us. Something with long black hair and black eyes. Something short enough to be an old woman with a red smile across her throat. Something that was standing, staring right at us.
We were all screaming now, the lights dancing around in confusion as we turned back the other way. Someone pushed me, and my phone flew out of my hands and across the room. I fell to the dusty floor, looking up to see where it landed, as feet stomped around me. I needed my phone. I needed my light. I—
I froze. My phone had landed back-up. The light from it was pointing directly at the ceiling, flowing up blue, moth-eaten pants and a dirty white shirt. All the way up to that red, red smile.
“Luke!” Someone was pulling me up, yanking me away from the sight of hanging skin that hadn’t been cleanly cut, away from the black hair that clung to the ripped flesh—
I followed whoever had grabbed me as though in a dream, back through two of the rooms with their ghostly tables and chairs.
“We’re almost to the front. Luke, we—“
The door leading to the greeting area slammed closed.
Silhouetted in the light of her phone, I could just make out Kayla’s fine, blonde hair as she yanked on the handle. I was pretty sure I could hear her sobbing. The door finally opened; she pulled me out, out past the fountain, past the partitioned doors, out to the cold night and cold stars and cold, fresh air.
Sense came to me slowly as Kayla tugged me away, further down the sidewalk and down the deserted street.
“Kayla.” She continued to pull, wild, frantic. “Kayla!”
She finally stopped, shaking, her eyes opened perpetually wide. I looked around. There was no one else with us.
“Kayla . . . Where are Clarissa and Andrew?” Kayla stared at me, uncomprehending. I shook her, my mind finally catching up to where we were. “Kayla, where are Clarissa and Andrew?”
She opened and closed her mouth, her eyes still taking up most of her face. Finally, she pointed one shaky finger back towards the end of the street.
I slowly turned around. The fog swirled about around my feet, opening and closing the path that would lead back to The Emperor’s Dragon like some wild, ghostly mouth.
“Luke,” the voice was no longer slinky, no longer alluring and confident. Instead, it sounded like it was coming through a tight straw, so thin that it almost melted away into the air. “I–I can’t. Didn’t you see?”
Yes, I had seen.
“But Clarissa and Andrew–”
“It was their own decision to come. It’s not like we made them.” Her eyes were still open wide, making her face look skeleton-like in the night.
But that wasn’t right. I couldn’t just leave them. “Luke,” Karla put a hand on my arm. It was shivering. Or was that me shaking so hard that it made her hand tremble up and down?
Because the truth was I didn’t think I could go back there. I didn’t think I could bear the door god’s eyes or the shadows beyond the light or the possibility of seeing red, red, red. The Snickers I had eaten was threatening to come back up. No, I wanted to go back home. Back to my bed and my posters of Magic Johnson and my warm, fuzzy puppy.
Karla’s hand squeezed my forearm. “Please don’t leave me alone.” The last words were barely audible.
Alone. Karla was worried about being alone. Worried about herself and walking ten minutes to her house down Berry Lane. All the while Clarissa and Andrew, two of the best kids in our grade, were stuck in the dark. And here I was being just as cowardly.
I pulled her hand off of me. “You’re not alone out here. But they are.”
The hair on my arms was standing on end. Goosebumps had made a comeback across my skin, the feeling made all the sharper by the cool October air.
I didn’t stop to see if Clarissa followed behind me. If I looked back, I thought I might not have the courage to return.