"You're not going up there are you?"
Kristin Malmberg looked up through the thickets and brambles of the poorly kept lawn in front of the "castle". She could barely see the foreboding stone structure on top of the hill, even though the afternoon sun was out. The trees, bushes and weeds seemed to suck up all the yellow-white sunlight. It was as if a chunk of night hung on the hill. She put her hand on the closed iron gate in front of the winding lane that led to the stone mansion. "Of course I'm going up there."
"But why?" Kurt Randall, her lanky 16-year-old buddy, asked.
"Well, because the place is haunted."
"You can't be serious."
"Gimme a break."
"It's really haunted! There's a witch that lives up there. She only comes into town twice a year to get food and the rest of the time stays up in her castle and does terrible things to children. Haven't you heard about the trick or treaters that never came back? Or the babies' bones they found in her trash? Or..."
"Come on, aren't you a little too old for those kiddie stories?" Kristin pushed her hair behind her ears and gave the gate a shove. The rusty hinges screeched like a lonely alley cat.
"Well, even if the castle isn't haunted, a crazy lady lives up there. She's liable to shoot you or something."
"It's not a castle. It's just a big stone house."
"It sure looks like a castle."
"Whatever." Kristin stepped inside the gate. She held a corrugated box with handles, full of candies she was attempting to sell. The lane was paved with crushed black stone. It looked like the volcanic pumice she had seen in her eighth-grade science class. It crunched with each step she took.
"Malmsie, I wouldn't go there." Malmsie was the affectionate nickname Kurt gave her. They had been friends since kindergarten. He felt different about her now. He didn't know what the feeling was. He was afraid to tell her, to talk about it, for fear it would ruin their friendship. Because he knew her so well, Kurt knew that once Kristin had set her mind to do something, there was no talking her out of it. But, he tried. "Come on, Malmsie, let's go to the next house."
Kristin turned back and looked at her friend. "Look, we're supposed to sell band candy, so I'm going to sell band candy. I want to win the iPod. Are you coming or not?"
"I think not. I'll stay down here. Call me on your cell if she tries to lure you into her basement and cook you or something." Kurt sat down at the base of the wall that surrounded the property. He watched Kristin walking away through a screen of chestnut hair hanging in his eyes. The girls on the Disney channel had nothing on her when it came to wholesome good looks. She had a purity about her. The air around her seemed to sparkle. He wondered if she would ever see him as anything other than a "buddy".
Kristin turned back toward the hill, gripping the handles of the box tighter. She was shorter than Kurt, with curly blonde hair that she hated but most people thought adorable. She had a sweet, slightly cherubic face and an easy, natural smile with rows of even white teeth. Her teeth and her smile were hidden because the corners of her mouth turned down in a slight frown.
Halfway up the lane she thought about turning back. The crunch-crunch-crunch of the black gravel and the way it echoed off the trees brought to mind the crunching of bones. The trees blocked the sunlight making it seem as if she were walking in twilight. And there was what sounded like the hoot-hoot of an owl. Didn't owls only come out at night? It was, she thought, a little spooky. A slight tingle of fear was beginning to zip around in her brain.
As she got closer to the house, she noticed that the brambles and bushes ended and there was a small, but very well-manicured front lawn, with a nice long bed of tulips following the contours of a huge, wraparound front porch. There wasn't a stick of furniture on the porch. It was a shame. Kristin realized you could sit on the porch and see the town, but you couldn't see the neat lawn and flowers from anywhere in town, even from the sidewalk in front of the house. How weird, she thought.
The front door was massive and stained a deep brown, almost black. Kristin looked around for a doorbell and finding none, knocked. She waited. Then knocked again. She waited some more. The tingle of fear buzzed continuously. She let out a sigh and turned to walk back down the lane.
"Who is it?" The voice was old, creaky.
Kristin turned back to the door. There was no one there. She looked left, then right, then back at the door. No one. She looked up at the top of the door and around the edges looking for a speaker of some sort. Nothing.
"It is...I am Kristin Malmberg."
"What do you want?" There was that voice again. Where was it coming from? Kristin looked closer at the door. Right in the center, about five feet from the ground, was a thick wire mesh, ten to twelve inches high and about eight inches wide, painted black, with a panel behind it. The panel had been slid to the side and she could see a pair of eyes looking at her.
"I am here to see if you might want some band candy. You see, every spring we sell candy to help us pay for new uniforms in the fall. It's really delicious. I have a wonderful selection. Chocolate bars, almond bark, white chocolate, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, turtles, caramels, mixed chocolates..."
"We don't want any." And the panel slid shut with a loud bang.
"Well, fine. Thank you very much." Kristin said, with as much sarcasm as she could muster. She started to turn and heard the panel slide open again.
"Come on in dear, don't mind Mabel, we don't have many visitors and she's quite forgotten her manners." This voice, although old, was smoother and much more pleasant than the first.
A lock clicked and then the handle turned and the door slowly opened inward.
Standing in the center of the door was a woman, probably in her early sixties, Kristin guessed, with white hair piled on top of her head in an old fashioned bun. She had pale lavender eyes, high cheekbones and a soft face unlined except for laugh lines around the eyes. The woman was dressed in a high-neck lavender dress that matched her eyes and had an almost regal posture. She had a slight smile on her face. Holding the door open was a shorter, pudgier woman, dressed in black, with a more-wrinkled face and dour expression.
"Please come on in. Don't be afraid."
Kristin stepped inside to a huge foyer. She felt a moist coldness on her cheeks. If it wasn't a haunted house, it could sure pass for one, Kristin thought. On the right was a formal dining room. On the left, what looked to be a living room. In front of her a darkened hallway loomed next to a huge staircase. The rooms were large and filled with massive old furniture. Everything was in somber shades of brown, black and deep burgundy. Even the walls were painted a glum shade of tannish-brown. All the curtains were drawn so the only light came from chandeliers with weak, yellow bulbs. The darkness seemed to press down upon Kristin, she wanted to turn around and run back down the hill.
"Follow me dear, I was just having tea. Let's talk about that candy of yours."