The old house stood a little way back from the main road, surrounded by a high brick wall. Joe passed it on the way to school each morning, and when he walked home with his friends Paul and Rob in the afternoons. The iron gates had long since been wired shut, and a lopsided, graffiti covered notice announced that trespassers would be prosecuted.
'Now that would be a cool place to go on Halloween,' Rob said.
Paul agreed, but then he always agreed with Rob. Joe wasn't so sure. Just looking at the blind windows, overgrown with ivy, gave him the shivers. He had a feeling that there was something inside - something that watched, and waited. But he knew they'd laugh at that, so he just kicked a crumpled cola can down the gutter and said nothing.
'What do you think, Joe?' Rob asked.
'Halloween at the old house?'
He shrugged. 'What if we were caught?'
'Don't be daft,' Rob scoffed. 'No-one's been guarding that old heap for years.'
Paul nodded. 'You aren't scared, are you?' he added.
The night before Halloween, Joe had a nightmare. He was standing in the grounds of the old house. It was dark. He felt - not exactly frightened - but definitely uneasy; the way you felt when you knew you should have finished your homework, and the teacher asked for it to be handed in. In such a situation, excuses ran through your head, and they all sounded pathetic. Here, he thought about different ways to escape, and realised none of them would work.
'We're waiting for you,' said a voice just behind him, in silken smooth tones that sounded menacing in some indefinable way. When he tried to turn he found he couldn't move. 'We've waited sooo long...'
As you do in a dream - and it was at this point that he knew he was dreaming - he felt an urge to look up at the chimney stack. A thick, oily black smoke oozed from each of the spiky-topped pots, spreading until it blotted out the stars. Wake up, he said to himself. Wake up now.
And he did, to find himself lying on his back looking up at the ceiling where a great black cloud had gathered. He still couldn't move, and when he tried to shout, his voice didn't work either. The evil smoke started to drop down towards him. It was going to smother him...
Then he woke up properly. His eyes snapped open. The room was cold; too cold. Something had been there. Something was waiting, and he didn't dare sleep again for a long time in case it came back.
'You don't look very well,' his mother commented at breakfast the next morning. 'I hope you aren't coming down with the flu. Maybe you should stay at home tonight,' she suggested mischievously.
The day crawled by. Everyone was talking about Halloween; and about what they would be doing later, but Joe kept remembering his nightmare. He had a horrible vision of the three of them running from a choking black cloud that wiped them all away, as if they had never existed.
'Be back by eight thirty,' his mum said that evening. 'And don't go scaring anyone. Or yourselves, for that matter. I know how vivid your imagination is at the best of times.'
On the way through the village they saw a few groups of younger children, shepherded by parents, and carrying glowing pumpkins as they made their way from door to door.
'Trick or treat's for kids,' Paul sneered.' We're going to have some real fun.'
By the time they'd gone past the shops, and the pub, out on the edge of the village, there was hardly anyone around. Under the orange glow of the streetlights, the road was empty. Bare branches waved in the wind, casting long shadows across the pavement like skeletal fingers.
'Come on.' Rob caught his hand and helped him up on top of the wall. It seemed much darker on the other side, as if the light was cut off by an invisible barrier. Long grass and weeds surrounded the house and overgrown bushes lurked as if waiting to pounce on anyone who dared to pass.
Joe took a deep breath, and jumped down. He wasn't going to let his imagination get the better of him. He wasn't going to have Rob and Paul tell everyone he was scared, like a little kid. But as the other two joined him, the wall suddenly appeared much higher, and the safe, sleepy village on the other side of it seemed far, far away.
'Woohoooo.' As they began to walk towards the house, Paul made what he thought was a ghostly noise.
'You sound like a werewolf with toothache,' Rob joked. 'Hey, do you suppose we might see any of them tonight?'
Joe checked the sky. 'It's not a full moon.'
'Yeah, but they can take stuff to make them turn any time they like. I saw it in a film once.'
'Me too,' Paul agreed.
'And just because it's in a film that makes it true?' Joe hoped he was right, because if all the horror films he'd seen were to be believed, then three eleven year olds investigating the grounds of a haunted house on Halloween were almost certain to end up as monster fodder.
'Sshh,' Rob hissed, stopping abruptly so that Joe almost walked straight into him.
'I thought I saw something at one of the windows.'
Joe glanced quickly at the windows, but they were veiled beneath their curtains of ivy.
'It was... It was...' And he wheeled around, baring long white fangs he must have put on earlier. 'Dracula.'
'Ha, ha. Very funny.'
They carried on, and soon reached the house. Up close, it seemed gloomier and more derelict than when you saw it from a distance. Some of the window panes had long since been smashed, then boarded up. Even the boards were broken in places.
Paul cautiously peered in through one of the gaps. 'Phew,' he said, turning around. 'It smells disgusting in there.'
'What, like someone's died, you mean?' Rob sounded interested, but Joe beat him to the window, looked in and sniffed cautiously. It was a mixture of damp, and earth, and fungus. And something... animal, too. 'There's probably rats and things in there,' he said. As he leaned inside a bit more, he felt a movement of air across his face; icy cold air. It was all he could do not to jump back, but he gratefully gave up his place to let Rob have a look.
'Hello,' Rob's voice boomed inside the echo chamber of the empty room. 'Anyone home?'
Joe had an uneasy feeling that they should not be there - that Rob was putting himself into danger. He grabbed his friend's shoulder. 'Come on. Let's have a look round the front.'
'Hang on a minute. My eyes are getting used to the dark.' Rob wriggled his shoulders further in through the gap. 'I think I can see...aarghh!'
As he shouted, his upper body disappeared through the gap. The boards broke apart even more with his struggles, and as he was steadily pulled inside.
Joe grabbed hold of his right leg and hung on, but whatever it was that had hold of him was too strong. Even when Paul tried to help, it was no good. In just a few seconds, Rob had disappeared inside the house, leaving behind nothing but scraps of torn material from his jacket, and a muddy trainer which had come off in Paul's hands.
Without thinking, Joe rushed to the gap and looked in. He couldn't see anything, but the animal scent he'd noticed earlier was much stronger. He thought he heard the sound of something being dragged along, but it faded quickly. Then, as he realised his own danger, he quickly ducked back.
Paul was still standing staring at the shoe he held, as if he couldn't believe what had just happened. 'What are we going to do?' he said, his voice a shocked whisper.
'I dunno.' All kinds of thoughts ran through Joe's mind in less time than it had taken for Rob to disappear. Relief - it could have been him with his head in there when whatever it was had come along. Helplessness, because he hadn't been able to stop it happening. And fear, not only of the thing that had got Rob, but of the consequences. What were they going to do now? What would Rob's parents say?
His thoughts were stopped abruptly by a deep, rumbling roar that clearly came from far inside the house, and shook the ground beneath their feet.
'Let's get out of here,' Paul said.
And then they were running back across the overgrown lawn, flinching away from the grasping shadows of the bushes, stumbling on the uneven ground. Clambering up onto the wall, Joe fell once and grazed all down one leg, but he hardly even felt the pain.
They ran down the empty street, back into the village, and he didn't dare look behind him in case something had followed.
After that it was all confusion, banging on Paul's door - his was the house they reached first, and blurting it out to Paul's dad, then having to say it all again because he didn't seem to be able to grasp what had happened. Paul's mum noticing the blood on Joe's leg, which was seemingly what made them decide it really was serious. The pain hitting him at last. Lots of questions, and phone calls, then his own dad arriving, and taking him to hospital. All he could think about was Rob, what had happened, and what might have happened, if only...
Later, the police asked him lots of questions too. They hadn't found Rob when they'd gone to search the house. Not a trace of him at all, just as if he'd never even existed. As if a black cloud had come and blotted him away. Joe heard that the police dogs had whimpered and put their tails between their legs, and couldn't even be dragged over the threshold.
Going back to school was even worse. People kept away from him and Paul, as if they were bad luck, or as if it had been somehow their fault. When they walked home, they took the long way round, to avoid going past the old house. They didn't say anything very much to each other about it either.
Once, he'd thought he was safe at home. And that danger was something you had to go and look for. But now, at night, when he was on the verge of sleep, Joe felt that brooding presence out in the darkness. He knew it was still there. And still waiting.