An eerie creak preceded the mahogany door cracking open and revealing three teens with apprehensive steps and flashlights. The crisp October air was almost overwhelmed by the mustiness of the redwood house, whose corners were still adorned with intricate webs powdered with dust and spider carnage. The portrait of a dignified man still peered at them from the stairwell, where Daryn was the first to creep, murmuring "You know this went badly last time we sneaked in here."
"And now we know what to expect," Alley hissed in return and meandered to investigate some artifacts in the living room. Wood creaked beneath her Converse as she peered at the dusted photographs across the fireplace mantle.
The slam of a door upstairs startled them. They could hear nothing but their own breathing as they stood stark still. Then came the static of a record player reading between the scratches on a ragtime piano record. Daryn peered down at the girls as the pounding of his own heart beat down the music.
"Do you know of anyone else who sneaks in here on Halloween?" Sarai murmured as they exchanged glances, startled expressions mirrored in one another.
"I really don't think anyone touches this place," Daryn answered as he crept up the stairs one at a time with Sarai at his heels. "Alley, stay here in case something happens and you should get help."
"Gee, thanks," she snapped and crossed her arms, but did not move. Her companions moved up the stars one step at a time as she watched them disappear up the stairwell.
Daryn darted the beam about the wooden planks, evaluating the dust, the record spinning within its player at the edge of the stairs, and a pair of leather boots. These startled him, and he raised the beam straight into the brown eyes of a suited man beneath a top hat. He shrieked and stumbled as he rushed down the stairs with Sarai. The moment Alley saw their eyes, she darted to the door, but it would not move. As they stopped to exchange another petrified look, a boot stomped with a creak and an echo down onto the highest step. Then another. And another. They stared, paralyzed with horror, as two ebony suited legs emerged into view. And as his jacket started to appear, he bellowed, "What are you all doing in my house?"
None could even move, let alone speak. They stared as the coat narrowed into an ascot and a pale neck and bearded visage. He stopped, eyes almost mahogany themselves in the light of the beam.
"Well? Do you have an answer for me?"
"We were only exploring," Daryn answered.
"And we are about to leave," Sarai added as she analyzed the man. He gave a single nod, almost as if he understood their conundrum, as he came down the last of the stairs with an echo against his boots. He stood contemplatively still about a moment, then released an enraged roar and sprinted straight at them. Alley screamed and Sarai dodged his movements, but Daryn could only move toward him and plunged his shoulder straight into the chest of the man. Then he scrambled upright again.
As the man lay sprawled onto the wood, Sarai snatched a glinting shard of glass out of the broken window and pointed it down at him. He remained silent a second, as ragtime was all that could be heard, then dissolved into laughter. She dropped the shard and it shattered to the wood.
The top hat had toppled from his head, revealing medium layers of rich mahogany hair. His hearty laughter echoed across the house as he ripped away the ringleted beard and rolled onto his knees to stand up before them, snatching the hat to brush the dust away.
"You," Sarai accused. "That was all you!"
"Who is this?" Alley demanded and pointed at him.
"Rearden McCallister," he answered with his accent and reached toward Daryn, who accepted his grip with apprehension as he murmured his reply.
When Rearden reached toward Alley, she crossed her arms and released her breath. He raised and dropped his shoulders in a shrug before striding to the door.
"Liam," he shouted and pounded his palm on the wood. "Unlock the door and come on in, brother."
"You scared us almost to death!" Sarai snapped.
"Is that not the reason you come here, anyway?" he asked as he returned to the middle of the room. "I remember hearing something about the three of you and your mate June Lily sneaking in here last Halloween and actually managing to get yourselves locked in a room upstairs," he pointed up and dissolved into a chuckle as he spoke. The door creaked open again and in came a young man about two inches shorter and contrasted with golden hair and emerald eyes. He was dressed in some sort of a tin foil and mesh attire that resembled a suit of armor. "Come and meet Sarai Deacon, Daryn Adlai, and…"
"… Alley Ethan," she griped.
"Alley Ethan," he repeated with a polite gesture in her direction as the makeshift knight in shining armor approached them. "This is Liam, obviously one of me many brothers."
As he spoke, Rearden reached into his pocket and sneaked a peak at his cell phone.
"Assuming you came here without permission again, and by the seclusion and security of this house, I believe you have," he scanned the house and returned his eyes to the screen, "I want to propose giving you all a ride home, or somewhere close to it, so you can avoid getting caught."
"We don't need a ride from you," Alley snapped.
"Sounds like you scared them pretty well," Liam smiled.
"Yes we did," Rearden smiled at him, then at the others. "You're not considering everything at play. Rain has started coming down, and the temperature dropped. We're not that close to anything." You have no light except those there," he pointed at the flashlights. "Exactly what was your cover story?"
"We've managed to sneak here once already," Sarai answered curtly and crossed her arms. "What makes you assume we need your help this time?"
"Because last time you got yourselves locked in a room upstairs and had to ask for help," Rearden answered with a trace of a smile. He waved his fingers toward himself. "Come on, let's have it."
They exchanged glances before Daryn said, "We came with Alley and her mother and little brothers to the haunted house down the street, and asked if we could explore the grounds."
"Same house we have to pick Alasdair up from," Rearden mused to Liam, then returned his eyes to the trio ahead. "He's the obnoxious kid dressed as a pirate. So she may be expecting to see you soon?"
"And you expect to be able to smuggle us there in that giant red van?" Sarai demanded skeptically.
Rearden pretended to scan the area in search of something. "I haven't seen that van since we got here. Have you seen it around anywhere, Liam?"
"No," he sheltered his emerald eyes with one hand and squinted out the shattered window. "I actually still don't see it, but it must be around here somewhere."
Rearden stopped his search and returned his eyes to the teens with an Austrian accent. "Come with me if you want to live."
Daryn was the first to release his breath and started past him to the door, saying, "You scare the crap out of us like that again, and I'll knock you down much harder."
"You do that," Rearden grinned and slapped him on the shoulder as he strode by. "Let me go shut down that record player up there."
When they emerged into the night, the air was crisp and misted on their breath. Raindrops pelted their skin and clothes, and the sliver of a moon was obscure through the pines. Rearden peeled away his jacket and started to work loose his waistcoat buttons, causing his companions to stare with repulsion.
"You can raise these up over you to avoid getting wet," Rearden answered with innocent surprise.
"We're good," Sarai assured as she started into the woods, darting her eyes around. "But thanks."
Rearden and Liam exchanged amused smiles as the three branched into different directions, peering all around themselves. Eventually, Rearden started around the corner of the house and waved them closer. "Come this way; the van's around here."
The three trudged after the brothers behind the house and into a pocket of earth where the van was stashed. Brittle leaves crunched beneath their shoes and the sporadic bat swooped past their eyes.
Rearden eased the driver door open and squeezed into the seat and made sure every passenger was inside before he started the van and maneuvered it between the pines and oaks. After some rough terrain in the muddy earth and some apprehensive stealing between trees, the van ambled onto a street and started toward the haunted house. Streetlights shimmered in the puddles on the asphalt.
People milled around the haunted house and meal vendors when Rearden pulled into a space, but there were many less than when they released Alasdair a couple hours prior.
"It was a pleasure meeting you two," he smiled over his shoulder and reached to shake their hands again, despite Alley muttering about how she was sure it was. "And see you in the morning, Sarai."
"Appreciate the ride," Daryn said as they climbed out and started searching for Mrs. Ethan. Soon after they disappeared, Alasdair came sprinting around people and leapt into the van.
"Plans still on tonight?" he smiled and gasped for breath.
"You know they are," Rearden answered as he maneuvered the van back onto the street and passed ma and pa markets and several homes. They rolled down the main street and continued down a winding two lane road until they came to a steep street between a gas station and a cemetery, onto which they turned and continued up until the gravel drive leading to the first house emerged came up on the left.
"It's about nine," Rearden mused when he stopped the van parallel to their house and checked the digital clock. "So we have about an hour to make sure Ma and Da are asleep so we can leave."
Abigeál was seated at the kitchen table with an opened cookbook and a notebook. Rearden came in first and leaned down to kiss her cheek.
"You've had a long day," he said and continued to the cabinets to pour himself a bowl of Cheerios.
"Yes," she smiled up at them. "Did you enjoy yourselves at the haunted house?"
They exchanged smiles before Liam answered, "I would say so."
"I'm glad," she smiled and returned to her menu planning. "Your Da is already asleep, since it was a long day. And Gavin baked some cinnamon apple fritters to eat in the morning, so save them until then."
"Sounds good," Alasdair answered and pointed his thumb over one shoulder. "We're gonna go challenge Calder to a game of darts or something. Have a good night, Ma."
"Sleep well, loves."
When they arrived at the room Eagan and Calder shared, they discovered the first mentioned seated on their mattress with his back against the wall and the second at the old desk against one wall with the lamp on, leaning over the preliminary etchings of a detailed sketch.
"We've been waiting until Ma goes to sleep," Eagan said. The mustiness of alcohol caught his attention and he casually peered down at his ochre and cranberry plaid sleeve to see if any residue of an earlier spilled drink was detectable. No stains, but he was bitterly aware of the persistent aroma.
"So are we," Rearden closed the door behind them and send a nod toward the round board. "Darts?"
"Not in the mood," Calder grumbled without a single glance away from his project.
"He's coming with under the guise of science, by the way," Eagan added.
"It is not a guise," Calder explained coolly, "it is a reason."
"You know you enjoy it," Alasdair teased. "Now why can't you get up and play darts?"
Calder removed the pencil he clenched between his teeth while erasing a portion of lines. "Because you are dressed like morons."
The three peered down at themselves, then at one another before Rearden said, "Well, at least I spent time on mine. Alasdair got his at the store."
Alasdair darted him an indignant look. "Well, at least I'm a pirate and not some old –"
"Shut up. I'll play darts with you," Eagan snapped and allowed Rearden to help pull him up.
Sixty minutes and many darts passed by the time Abigeál creaked down the hall and into her room, and another ten passed until the boys were reasonably assured that both parents were in a sound enough sleep to continue with their evening plans.
Eagan rummaged around the desk drawer to gather the materials to make his contribution, Calder searched out his materials in the kitchen, Rearden sneaked his materials out of his room, Liam rushed out into the rain to retrieve his alleged school experiment out from under a suspended tarp, and Alasdair snatched a ripe apple out of the fruit basket before gathering his materials in the garage (apple-in-mouth) and meeting his brothers at the van.
As they opened the hatch and shoved their plastic containers of material into the van, Eagan reached to Rearden and demanded the keys.
"Why do you have to drive?" Rearden challenged.
"Because I'm the one who drove all over to find an isolated area today," Eagan replied, and was appeased with the metallic jingle of keys in his hand.
The raindrops pelting their windshield thinned and then ceased as Eagan seemed to reverse the route they had driven home, but continued down the street until homes were rare and pines were abundant. The boys all shivered within their sweatshirts, as the heater was down and temperatures were beneath what they were accustomed to. After some time, they arrived at a barren pasture down a dirt road that seemed to last an eternity. They stood together and peered around themselves as Eagan came around the van and raised the hatch.
"Where are we?" Liam asked in astonishment. He realized they were on the shore of a lake or a substantive pond, whose waves shimmered with moonlight.
"No one knows, and that's the beauty of this place," Eagan answered as he retrieved his supplies.
By the fences that surrounded them and the distant lowing of cattle, Rearden assumed they were in the crossroads of several ranches. He reached to gather his own supplies and started toward the middle of the dirt. "What order are we going in?"
"All I know is I have to go last," Eagan answered. "Because we'll have to leave immediately."
"I will go first," Calder came toward the middle of the dirt and crouched down to open his supplies. His brothers gathered around him and peered down as he assembled a mound of sand with his hands and made a depression in the middle. He removed a small vial out of his cobalt sweatshirt pocket and poured what smelled like lighter fluid into the hole, then poured an emptied water bottle of baking soda and sugar in after it. With one more fluid movement, he rose, struck a match, and dropped it in.
A flame appeared with the aroma of burnt marshmallows. Then a charred coil started emerging out of the ground, resembling a snake. Calder crossed his arms with a smirk of satisfaction.
"Chemistry at its finest."
Eagan snorted and waved Alasdair toward him. "Do yours."
Alasdair strode proudly toward the black snake as it concluded its performance and crouched to set a toilet paper tube covered in tin foil on the dirt. He struck another match and dropped it in. Suddenly, violet flames sputtered into the atmosphere with a plume of dense smoke.
The crickets ceased and Alasdair observed his accomplishment with a proud smile.
"Eagan, how far do you suppose we are away from civilization?" Rearden asked.
"You rode up here, same as I did. Couldn't see anyone when I was here earlier."
"Perfect," he moved toward the middle of the dirt area and dropped to one knee to carve a narrow hole into the ground with a metal stake he discovered laying in the van. He then removed the paper tube from his container and dropped it in at an angle. He snapped a match against its side and ignited the fuse. It started spitting sparks by the time he moved away, and suddenly, it shot a pair of scarlet exploding starts into the sky. Another silver pair came after, and then cobalt.
"Not bad," Eagan praised with crossed arms. Rearden pulled a small cooler out of the van while Liam raised the hatch to extract two metal poles and a stack of paper tubes with wire loops on the ends, as well as a roll of wire. He unraveled this and strung it through all the loops before fastening each end of the wire to a pole. Then he raised them up and planted them several yards apart. He struck a match against the matchbox and ignited one end of the contraption, sending a rush of sparks along the wire until the entire spectacle resembled a waterfall of sparks. Alasdair crowed and Rearden applauded.
"That was bleedin' deadly!" Rearden opened the cooler when the sparks sputtered out of existence about a minute later. He drew out a bottle of Dr. Pepper and tossed it to Liam, and another of ginger ale to Eagan. Calder caught his Pepsi with one hand, and Alasdair snatched his Mountain Dew out of the air. After retrieving himself a Cherry Coke, Rearden seated himself with his brothers at the edge of the lake. Waves gently lapped against the rocks upon which Calder and Liam were seated, and the crickets resumed their chirping.
"We need to conclude this event soon," Calder mused as he scanned his eyes across the water. "We may be in the middle of nowhere, but someone is sure to report the smoke at least."
Liam stared up as more stars started sparkling through the dispersing smoke. "Let's make sure it clears some more before we start."
All slurped the rest of their sodas in silence as they enjoyed the scenery and the owl that started to coo in the pines somewhere. The atmosphere was clear again by the time they set aside their bottles.
"Eagan, you're up," Rearden announced and watched his brother stride to the van and raise the hatch. Alasdair caught a glimpse of the contents and leaned down to attempt to see more.
"Do not attempt this, because you will almost certainly set yourselves on fire," Eagan said as he reached into the van for a container of kerosene and a torch and returned to the edge of the water. "Speaking of which, if I set myself on fire, I would appreciate it if you would throw me into the pond."
He caught his lighter aflame and raised it to the marshmallow end of his torch, causing shadows to dance across his hands. He then raised the container of kerosene to his mouth and passed it back to Rearden, who returned it to where they were seated. After smearing his sleeve across his mouth, Eagan raised the torch ahead of him and sprayed kerosene in a seventy degree angle at the flames, shooting them out to the pond in a raging fire stream. The crickets ceased again, but crows erupted from his brothers as the smell of kerosene tainted the air. He smeared his mouth across his sleeve again and reached toward the container Rearden passed him to raise it to his lips again. After another mouthful, he passed it back and sprayed the flames again, shooting a ball of fire across the pond.
He was received with applause as he extinguished his torch in the pond and returned to his brothers with a slight bow. After, he reached to pull his scarlet sweatshirt over his shoulders. Rearden reached into the cooler and pitched him a bottle of water, which he caught, twisted the cap away with his teeth, and spat aside. He threw his head back and allowed his mouth to swell with water.
"You are going to kill yourself doing that someday," Calder admonished him sharply after his applause. "You are aware of this, are you not?"
"Shut up, unless you can make black snakes that are cooler than what you just saw," Eagan answered with a point and a smile after spewing the tainted water beside him.
"So what was that second display you said would make us have to leave real fast?" Alasdair asked with a shimmer in his aquamarine eyes that resembled that of an excited child. Eagan reached into his sweatshirt pocket with a simper and presented a crimson orb between his thumb and index finger.
"Aren't those illegal here?" Calder challenged and leapt up and strode toward his brother with a finger pointed at his pockets. "And I can't imagine how stupid you must be to have those on your person while messing with fire. You would have all but detonated if there was an accident!"
"Might I suggest you step back?" Eagan answered calmly as he returned to the barren ground and shrugged away his sweatshirt to pitch it at his brother. "Loose clothing removed. Are you done, or is there anything else I can do to displease you first?"
Calder bunched up the sweatshirt in his hands and cast it down in the dirt, grumbling, "You had better not get me arrested" as he returned to his seat. Eagan switched on his lighter and raised it to the fuse, placed the device on the earth, and darted away.
Bang! An explosion of fire burst.
"That should attract the police, so I have one more," Eagan reached out to the second one stashed aside and raised the flame to the fuse. There was a slight flare and flames shot up his sleeve, causing him to drop the cherry bomb in the dirt and cast himself aside to smother his arm between himself and the dirt as the device exploded within a yard.
"Get him up and get everything in the van!" Rearden rushed to his brother while Calder rushed to retrieve the first aid supplies out of the van and Alasdair snatched the bottle of water Eagan threw aside after cleansing his mouth of fuel. Liam started shoving their possessions into the van by the time Eagan raised himself up from his arm and peered down to see his singed sleeve with humming ears.
"Get water on it," Alasdair untwisted the cap and poured it down his arm.
"Get in the van!" Rearden shouted as Liam shoved down the hatch. He snatched Eagan by the healthy arm as he shoved himself up and threw himself into one of the opened doors. Rearden pursued him and scrambled over the seats to the driver side.
"You have no idea where we are!" Eagan protested.
"I rode up here, same as you!" Rearden snapped and started the engine without headlights. After everyone was in the van, he sneaked the massive vehicle toward the path with minimal movement until they reached the dirt road, where there was an alcove to stash the van in the midst of overgrown grass and behind Manzanitas. All they heard was their breathing as a patrol car crept past them a minute later without any headlights himself. Calder leaned close to Eagan with a spark of lightning in both his brown and his cobalt eyes.
"Was the kerosene the accelerant on your sleeve, or was there anything else?" he hissed maliciously as Eagan used his lighter to examine his reddened arm above the rolled sleeve. Blisters split the skin on his palm and the back of his hand. "You are so stupid! Unbelievably stupid."
"Shut up!" Eagan snarled at him.
"They're only first degree burns on his arm, but second degree on his hand," Alasdair observed as he peered over his shoulder. "Get some cream on it and wrap it up."
"Get that flame out!" Liam said urgently when the patrol car emerged again and sneaked back down the road. Rearden awaited its disappearance in the pitch darkness as the flame was extinguished, and then waited more to ensure no one was around. Then he maneuvered the van back onto the dirt road with its headlights and streamed back onto a main street.
Rain started again as they rode in silence past the woods and sparse houses. As Calder was seated to the right of Eagan, he was the one to keep the gauze pressed on either side of his hand as he wrapped a cloth bandage up his wrist and around his palm. The salve he slathered over the blisters already soothed the biting pain. He then slipped his arms into his scarlet sweatshirt and made sure the sleeves covered the backs of his hands.
Rearden shut down the headlights when they approached their drive, bathing the scenery in darkness. He crept the van up the street and into the area ahead of their house. The living room was illuminated, so he twisted around to peer at his brothers.
"You suppose we can get around the house without being seen?"
"Who is even up so late?" Calder mused as he squinted toward the house.
"We split up and sneak around the house alone," Eagan said.
"And we should be all right if we remain in the shadows," Liam added as he opened the passenger door as gently as he could and sneaked out. "See if you can keep an eye on whoever is in there, and if we pay attention, we can probably get in undetected."
All five boys climbed out of the van and crouched down where they were to get an eye on the house. Eagan plucked at Calder's arm and started around to their left, crawling against the fragrant juniper and thorny blackberry vines until they were crawling between the house and the brush. They rounded the corner and continued against the house.
As they reached their window close to the middle of the house, Rearden and Liam emerged into the moonlight at the started crawling toward their corner window. Eagan raised himself onto his knees and peered inside to make sure the coast was clear before removing their screen with a delicate hand. He moved aside so Calder could scramble in ahead of him, then sneaked in after him as Rearden and Liam repeated this stunt with their own window.
Alasdair scrambled across the ground after them, when he was assured that none of them were caught. He discovered himself soon beneath the second window, behind which was the room he shared with Gavin, which was beside the first window of the laundry room. He removed the screen with care and crawled inside, deliberate when he replaced the screen. He dressed in his pajamas as swiftly as he could in the dark and crawled beneath the covers of the mattress he shared with Gavin.
Almost as soon as he settled in, his brother stirred and yawned. "Where have you been?"
Alasdair propped himself on one elbow with a grin. "You missed seeing Eagan light himself on fire!"
"I'll see it some other time," Gavin promised, and shifted onto his side to sleep. Eventually, the light in the living room disappeared into darkness and all in the house were asleep.
- Record player: "Sugar Cane Rag" by Scott Joplin
- When crickets cease: "King of the Fairies" by Fathom