Mallory Jennings had never been genuinely scared in her entire life. She'd been startled, shocked, surprised and flabbergasted quite a few times, but she had never experienced true fear. Some of her schoolmates said it was because she was utterly fearless, and couldn't be frightened by anything of this world or the next. Skeptics said she was just faking the bravery to look tough. Either way, she didn't care what they thought of her.
Not until the bet was made anyway.
Andy Scott and Billy Roberts, the only two guys deemed tough enough by Mallory to hang out with her, had suggested it one fine summer evening while the trio was walking home from the local bookstore.
Yes, contrary to popular belief, tough, fearless people like to read books occasionally. Not just comic books, but big thick novels about myths, urban legends, and long-forgotten fables. A lot of people say that's where she got her courage -from those books- because she knew how to tackle any monster, ghost or demon that got in her way.
The three of them had been avidly discussing the old Twin Magnolia Mansion; an enormous Victorian manor house just outside of town, when it got brought up that Mallory had never been dared to go inside the supposedly haunted estate.
"I'll bet ten dollars that you'll be scared witless if you go in there!" Andy sneered, sucking on a lollipop he'd dug out of his jeans pocket.
"Especially if you were alone…and it was at midnight!" Billy added.
Mallory sniffed, "Yeah right. You two sods obviously don't remember the time I picked up that Copperhead and held it for ten minutes, or the time I hopped Mr. Allen's fence to get some kid's baseball and nearly got shot in the process…" she really could go on and on about all the feats she's accomplished, but she didn't have the time to go down the whole list. It was about a mile long after all…
"So that means you'll do it? Tonight?"
"Yup." she boldly accepted the deal.
"You'll do the Secret Bet Handshake and take the Oath?"
"Let's do it." she held out her slender hand to their stubby, dirty ones.
They shook as she recited their Oath, "Cross my heart and hope to die, should I cheat, chicken out, or lie." she swore solemnly.
The deal was done.
She had a date with some ghosts at twelve o'clock tonight…
Mallory stole down her front porch steps at eleven thirty that night, armed with a flashlight, a camera and her favorite black jacket, in case she got the chills. Her mom and dad were sleeping like a pair of logs, so there was no way they would know she was gone.
Unless something happens to her…and she doesn't make it home.
"Oh shut up! Stop trying to scare yourself!" she scolded herself inwardly. But no matter how hard she tried, her thoughts kept straying to what happened to Katie Johnson fifty years ago…she'd gone into the old house alone at midnight, and when she came out to meet her friends, she'd keeled over and died of shock. Right there on the sidewalk. Her friends had to carry her home and explain to her parents what had happened. No one had been in that house since, for fear of death.
Oh, but Mallory Jennings wasn't gonna let a little thing like that stop her!
When she arrived at the wrought-iron gates, her two cohorts were already waiting, their teeth chattering and their knees knocking anxiously.
"Scared boys?" she teased, making them both jump. She was also famous for being able to sneak up on people and scare the daylights out of them.
"N-no…" Andy squeaked, "Are y-you ready?"
She nodded, "Whenever you are."
Billy shook like a leaf in a windstorm, "You r-remember the d-deal, right?"
"I have to stay in there for a whole hour, alone, take pictures of as many rooms as possible, and I can't run out screaming or I owe both of you ten bucks. Yeah I know." she hissed impatiently. She was ready to get this over and done with so she could get home and get back to sleep.
"Good luck." they both whimpered as she crawled through an opening in the fence and started down the short path to the porch. Several of the windows were busted out, so she didn't even bother looking at the door as she approached, wriggling through one of them instead.
She immediately snapped a photo of the foyer and the parlor, along with the grand staircase and a large kitchen. Her arms and face were constantly assaulted by cobwebs as she trooped through the long hallway and into the two small bedrooms on the ground floor. The cellar door was blocked by a huge wardrobe and a dusty mirror, so she didn't attempt to enter it, but captured a photo of it as proof that she'd been to that part of the house.
After covering the entire bottom floor of the mansion, she crept up the creaky stairs to the second floor. For some reason, she suddenly got the feeling that she was being not only watched, but followed as well. Every time she turned around, expecting to see her friends tiptoeing behind her and giggling like a bunch of schoolgirls, she was met with the emptiness of the hall behind her. She thought she'd caught the glint of cat's eyes with her flashlight, but when she went back over that area with the beam of light again, they were gone.
Mallory found her way into three more bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining room, and she stuck her head into the attic, which was completely empty except for the dust coating the floor. Just as she was turning to leave, she noticed a door that she hadn't seen before. It was slightly cracked open, revealing an entire wall of nothing but books.
Her unease was quickly disregarded as she dashed inside, staring in awe at row upon row of books as thick as her arms. Some were ancient fairytales, others were encyclopedias and dictionaries, and even the odd thesaurus here and there, and still others were mysterious volumes with no title on their spines. The flashlight danced over the shelves, taking in every shape of the manuscripts that lined them.
It was then a thought struck Mallory, "Gee, wouldn't it rub salt in the guys' wounds if I brought a book out with me?" She still had thirty minutes left, so she had plenty of time to look for one to claim as her prize.
There was no ladder in sight, so she'd have to pick one from a shelf that she could reach from the ground. She was about to get up on her tiptoes to reach a particularly large copy of Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" when a voice suddenly came out of the darkness.
"You might want to get one lower down…that one's a little heavy Miss." it suggested.
Mallory froze in place, gasped in surprise, and then quickly assumed the "Please don't kill me!" position with her flashlight aimed in the general direction of the voice, "W-who are you?! C-come out where I can s-see you!" she demanded, wielding her flashlight like a Light Saber.
"I'm right in front of you, if you'd lower your arms you could see me. And kindly lower your light please, I can't see you very well." the voice was closer now, less than three feet away. Mallory could see what looked like a cat's paw reached out to her, and could see the shine of feline eyes reflecting the light's beams. Still slightly panicked, she brought her hands down to waist-level and turned to look at who, or what, was talking.
Her eyes got as wide as silver dollars when she took in the sight before her…a cat that was easily about an inch taller than her, with bright blue eyes and brown, orange, and black spots on his white fur. He wore a pair of tattered army green pants and a teal shirt that was ripped in several places, but no shoes on his paws. His whiskers were bent and crooked, and both ears were notched and bent at the tips.
The cat-boy looked pretty harmless, but that didn't stop Mallory from missing a few heartbeats, "Oh my…gah! You can't just sneak up on people like that! You almost scare- I mean surprised me to death!" she huffed indignantly.
He raised his eyebrows, "Pardon me for giving you such a start, but you startled me too Miss. See, I'm not used to visitors at this hour, or any other hour for that matter." he almost purred, "I heard you come in downstairs, but I didn't see you until you came inside the library."
"Oh, sorry…I didn't know anybody was in here. My friends dared me to come in here…everybody thinks this place is haunted or something…" Mallory stammered nervously.
He smiled, "That's alright. You aren't the first to come in here and discover me…though I hope you fare better than the last girl that found a way in. I didn't mean to frighten her that bad…" he remembered Katie Johnson, who'd stumbled across him all that time ago, and then died not long after. He didn't want anything like that to ever happen again, so he always avoided any curious teens who wandered inside, but Mallory had cornered him in the library. He had taken a chance by revealing himself, but it was actually working out better than he had anticipated.
She squinted at him skeptically, "You're what caused her to go into shock? You aren't scary-looking at all…now that I can see you." she added sheepishly.
"Well…thank you. I'm glad somebody isn't afraid of me…"
Mallory smirked, "Yeah, nothing much unnerves me!" she exclaimed confidently. Any other boy would've made a point about his appearance causing her to become quite flustered, but that's not how this one had raised himself. He didn't want to offend the one person he's met that didn't run away from him screaming, "So, what's your name? I don't actually have one…never really needed one, since I've always been by myself."
"Mallory. Mallory Jennings." she extended a shaky hand, still struggling to return her breathing and heartbeat to normal, "Well, I kinda need something to call you…any particular name you like a whole lot?"
He put his paw into her outstretched palm, "Well, I've always rather liked the name Oliver. One family that lived here a long time ago had a like Yorkshire terrier named Oliver…he was a nice little dog, didn't bark much. Not even when he found me down in the basement."
"The basement? But it's blocked off, isn't it? By that bureau?" Mallory felt the soft fur against her hand, and her pulse finally slowed down. She no longer felt anything close to fear.
"No, there's actually a door hidden inside of that wardrobe. I made it myself when the last people moved out and left everything here." Oliver reluctantly let go of his new friend's hand, "It comes in handy when you need to hide a lot."
"Ah…that makes sense."
Mallory's watch suddenly began beeping, alerting her that her hour inside the house was up, and she needed to head outside once more, "Oh! Sorry Oliver, I have to go…Andy and Billy are waiting out there for me, and I've been gone an awful long time…" she turned to leave, when she realized he was holding out a book to her.
"Here, take this. Go rub some salt in their wounds." he winked mischievously, "Just bring it back when you get the chance. I'd like to see you again…it does get rather lonely here." he told her, somewhere between a whisper and a purr.
She stopped and took the book, "Yeah, of course I'll come back! Here, take my jacket, for insurance. I won't need it tonight anyway." peeling off her light coat, she folded it in half and handed it to him. Taking a quick picture of the last room of the house, she waved goodbye to Oliver and sprinted back into the warm summer night.
The boys wouldn't stop whining about having to pay up the whole walk home, and neither of them paid any attention to what she was trying to tell them about the huge library and the hidden passage into the cellar. She fully intended to talk Oliver into letting her down there, provided there was something interesting in it.
"Maybe that's where he stays when he sleeps or something…maybe there's more books, or something even better! Or nothing." she thought to herself, distractedly brushing the dust off the book he'd given her.
She hadn't even bothered to look at the title of the book when she got it, but she could tell by how loose the binding of the spine was that it had been read several times, and it was very, very old. The pages were yellowed and soft; some of them were torn in a few places.
When Andy and Billy were finally back at their respective houses, Mallory decided to take a gander at the name of the hardback…and was slightly startled when she blew off the grime covering the engraved letters…
"Beauty and the Beast" was what its label read.