Jessie and the Haunted House

     I woke up excited. It was Halloween, my favoritest of holidays! Tim, Casey, and I were meeting up to go to the haunted house just outside Norrisville that night. (And by “haunted mansion,” I mean “house decorated by Lutheran church members”). It wasn’t usually very scary, but it was fun. 
     School seemed interminable, even Mr. Winslow’s history class, which was normally my favorite. When the final bell rang, I ran for the door and found Casey outside.
     “Are you ready for tonight?” I asked. She was, as usual, wearing black. Black boots, black jeans, black jacket. 
     “Of course I am! The question is, what are you wearing?” She and Tim had been harassing me all month, but I wouldn’t budge. 
     “It’s a surprise, I told you!” I said, swatting her shoulder. 
     “I’m not sure you can top Annie Oakley,” Tim said, walking over to us and smiling. His short blond hair gleamed in the afternoon sunlight.
     “Anything I can do, I can do better,” I said, smirking. Casey rolled her eyes.
     “Let’s leave at six,” Casey said, checking her watch. “I’ve got homework to finish before then.”
     Tim and I agreed, and we parted ways. 

**************************************************

     Back home, I raced through my homework, then went to my closet and pulled out my costume. Just as I was about to start changing, my room door crashed open and my younger brother Bryan barged in. 
     “Bryan! KNOCK!” I said, covering myself even though I was still fully clothed. 
     He ignored me and looked at the costume on my bed. “What are you dressing as? A Mountie?” Bryan ducked as I aimed a punch at his shoulder. 
     “No. I’m Amelia Earheart, pilot extraordinaire.”
     Mumbling something that sounded a lot like “lame,” Bryan dodged again. 
     “If you’re just going to insult me, get out,” I said. “I’ve got to get ready to go.”
     “Well,” he said, hanging by the door and running a hand through his curly blond hair, “I wanted to ask...if I could go with you guys.”
     I was speechless for a moment. Normally, Bryan isn’t capable of being polite. Also, at fourteen, he’s three years younger than us, and I wasn’t keen to drag him along. 
     “Bry—aren’t you and Nick terrorizing the trick-or-treaters at the door like you normally do?” Nick was Tim’s younger brother and Bryan’s best friend.
     “Nooooo. He’s sick.” Bryan kicked at my carpet, and I resisted the urge to bodily throw him from my room.
     “Ugh. Fine. IF Mom and Dad say it’s ok,” I said, turning back to the costume on my bed. “And IF you promise to knock in the future.”
     Bryan’s face lit up. “Mom and Dad already said it was fine, as long as it was ok with you!” That explained the politeness. “I’ll put on my costume!” He slammed the door behind him.
     I began my transformation into Amelia Earhart. Light brown leggings, knee-length boots, and a white shirt comprised the first layer. I’d borrowed by grandfather’s leather bomber jacket, my dad’s safety goggles, and my mom’s white scarf. To top it all off, I found a perfect leather cap with ear flaps at the thrift store. It was, I thought, a freaking awesome costume. If a bit warm.
     Downstairs, Bryan was waiting for me. He was dressed normally (i.e., jeans and a t-shirt) except for a tiny sign on his chest that said “poetry.”
     “I thought you were changing,” I said, looking at my watch. “I have to leave.”
     “This is my costume! I’m poetry in motion.” 
     I rolled my eyes. “Very clever. Mom, Dad, we’re leaving!”
     My parents walked out of the kitchen. “Ooooo, Amelia!” Mom said, giving me a thumbs-up. 
     “Looking good,” Dad agreed. “Try to stay out of trouble.”
     “You know me,” I said. “We’ll be back by ten.”
     Brian and I hopped in my old, orange Jeep, and we headed to pick up Tim and Casey, both of whom lived close by. Casey appeared to be wearing the same clothes she’d had on at school, but she’d put on makeup that made her skin even paler than normal, along with bright red lipstick. Her long, wavy black hair hung past her shoulders. Bryan looked like he might drool, so I elbowed him.
     “You’re a vampire, huh?” 
     “Yeah! And Amelia Earhart. Nice!”
     Tim had slicked his hair back, tucked his glasses away, and was wearing long, dark robes, a snobby expression, and carrying a wand. 
     “Draco!” Bryan said excitedly. 
     “Yes,” Tim murmured, looking down his nose at Bryan. “And Jessie, what are you? A Mountie?”
     “Really? No! Casey knew who I was,” I said, frowning at him.
     “I’m just kidding. Obviously, you’re Orville Wright. Where's Wilbur?”
     I threw a paper cup at him, and he ducked, laughing. 
     We pulled up to the haunted mansion and parked along the road. It was chilly, and I was glad to have my hat, scarf, and jacket. The wind rustled through the empty trees, and an owl hooted softly.
     “Spooky!” Casey said, rubbing her arms. 
     We paid our admissions fee at the gate and entered the front yard. Bails of hay were scattered around, decorated with jack-o-lanterns, grinning skeletons, and fake headstones. I waved at Ms. Booth, the librarian. We recognized a lot of other kids from Norrisville high, and I scowled as Zoe Bloodsworth pranced by, dressed, I can only assume, as a cat, judging by her skin-tight bodysuit and the tiny ears perched on her head. She smiled at Tim, then said nastily, “Nice Mountie costume, Jessie!”
     My ears burned. “I’m Amelia Earhart, Zoe! Read a book sometime.”
     Casey took my arm and guided me to the front door of the house. “Ready to be scared?” 
     “Ugh. Yes. Are Bryan and Tim with us?”
     “Right behind you!” Tim said, pulling Bryan, who was now staring after Zoe.
     We entered the main hall, where sinister music was playing. Arrows on the floor suggested we go to the kitchen, where flickering candlelight bounced off surfaces. 
     “BOO!” A ghost dressed in a bed sheet jumped up from behind the kitchen counter, and we all jumped, laughing. A cutting board was covered in what looked like chopped fingers, and Casey wrinkled her nose.
     We left the kitchen and passed through a dark hallway into a large study, where a man appeared to be passed out on a desk. Bryan walked around to look at his face, and I said, “Careful, Bryan, he’s gonna jump up and yell any time.”
     Bryan stuck his tongue out at me and poked the man. He didn’t move. Just then, a middle-aged woman entered the study, wringing her hands and looking around. 
     “Excuse me,” she said, addressing us, “do you mind if I turn on the lights for a moment?”
     “No problem,” Tim said. “Is everything all right?”
     She flicked the switch. I recognized her as Mrs. Downey, the person in charge of the haunted house. Her worried demeanor was offset by the chicken costume she was wearing. 
     “Oh, Jessie, dear, I didn’t recognize you at first!” she said, walking to the desk and pulling open drawers. The man still hadn’t moved.
     “Is he…ok?” I asked.
     She laughed briefly and knocked on the man’s head. “Oh, this is a dummy. One of our more authentic ones.” 
     Bryan leaned in, and studied the dummy, impressed.
     “Mrs. Downey, what are you looking for?” I asked.
     She sighed. “This year, we have prizes for the best costume. First prize is a tablet, second prize is one of those video game systems, and third prize is a gift card. I brought them in myself ten minutes ago and left them in a closet off the main hall, and when I went back for them, they were gone!”
     “Yikes,” Casey said. “That’s too bad.”
     Mrs. Downey’s comb drooped as she dropped her head. “The prizes were paid for out of our Lutheran hospitality fund. We won’t be able to get any more.”
     “Maybe we can help you find the thief!” Bryan said, finally leaving the dummy alone. “It’s probably somebody who’s still here. It’d look too suspicious if they left right after the haunted house opened.”
     “And,” Tim said, warming up to Bryan’s idea, “I bet the thief hid the prizes somewhere else! Nobody could carry that stuff out of here without being noticed.”
     “Unless,” I added, “their costume involves a decent-sized bag.”
     Mrs. Downey looked slightly more hopeful. “Do you mind? I would appreciate some help in searching for the prizes. But please, be careful, and don’t tell anyone else.”
     We promised to keep things quiet and huddled in the corner of the study. “What do you guys think? Should we search the house first, or scope out suspicious costumes?” I asked.
     “I say let’s check out who’s here,” Casey said, twirling her hair. “If they’ve hidden it, it’s not going anywhere.”
     “Good call,” Tim said, and Bryan and I agreed. Outside, we split up. Casey and I stayed together, while Bryan left with Tim. “Remember, we’re looking for bags and containers,” I told them as they walked away.
     “Let’s find Zoe Bloodsworth. It has to be her,” I said to Casey. Zoe’s father ran the Norrisville Times, the local newspaper. She acted like she owned the world.
     “Dude, you saw her costume already. There’s no way she’s hiding anything. I know you don’t like her, but that doesn’t mean she’s guilty.”
     “Doesn’t it?” I asked, looking over the building crowd. At six feet, this was easier for me than for Casey. 
     “Hey, what about that guy over there?” Casey asked, pointing at a teenage boy wearing a black mask over his eyes and carrying a burlap sack with a dollar sign on it. “That looks perfect for carrying stolen loot.”
     We sidled up to him. “Jason!” Casey said, smiling. “Nice costume. What’s in your bank robber bag?”
     Jason looked down at Casey with a frown that quickly turned into a leer. “What’s up, Torres? Looking good tonight.” 
     Casey had the grace not to look disgusted. 
     “She asked about your bag, Jason,” I said truculently. “It looks full. What’s in it?”
     “Why do you care?” he asked, clutching the bag to his chest. “It’s none of your business.”
     Casey rolled her eyes. “We made a bet. Jessie thinks it’s pillows, and I said it was probably clothes. Just let us see, please?”
     Jason’s Adam’s Apple moved up and down, but he didn’t protest further. “Fine. You can look. But don’t tell anyone!”
     He opened the bag. It was full of stuffed animals, many of whom were pink and purple with large eyes.
     I smiled. “Couldn’t be without them, could you?”
     Jason glared at me, a pimple glistening on his chin. “They’re my little sister’s. She let me borrow them. Pillows probably would’ve been a better idea.”
     Casey laughed. “Thanks for settling our bet, Jason.”
     He grunted and walked away. I was still searching the crowd for Zoe. “Gross. Looks like we don’t need to talk to Zoe after all. Bryan’s interrogating her right now,” I said, sitting on a bail of hay. “See any other likely candidates?”
     “That woman over there is carrying a guitar case,” Casey said, pointing to a woman with a red ponytail near the entrance. “I guess she could be hiding them.”
     “Perfect,” I said. “Let me handle this one.”
     We walked casually over to the woman, who was looking at something on her phone. She was in her late twenties and was wearing bell-bottoms and a blue peasant blouse. 
     “Hi!” I said, admiring her costume. “Are you a folk singer?”
     “I’m supposed to be Joan Baez,” the woman said, smiling. 
     “Can you play us a song?” I asked. “I love guitar music.”
     She hesitated. “It’s a little chilly…”
     “Just one,” I said, smiling broadly. “Then we’ll leave you alone.”
     “Oh, all right,” she said, but I could tell that she really didn’t mind. She opened the guitar case and pulled out a guitar with a rainbow strap. Obviously there wasn’t room in the case for anything else, but we couldn’t just leave now that we’d asked her to play. 
     She started strumming, and then, in a low, clear, voice, began singing.
     “Wow, she’s really good,” Casey said, as a small group of people began to gather around to listen. Casey plays guitar and writes music; I could see her imagining performing with the woman.
     As the song finished and everyone clapped, we thanked the woman and Casey got her card. 
     “Well, this has been fun so far, but we’re striking out,” I said, heading towards Bryan and Tim.
     “Any luck?” Casey asked them.
     Tim shook his head. “Nope. Zoe almost slapped your brother, though.”
     “Bryan!” I said. “Don’t provoke her. She’s my nemesis.”
     Bryan ignored me. “We searched one guy’s backpack who was dressed as a hiker. Nothing but clothes in it, though.”
     We updated them on our search efforts and decided to go back inside the house. More people were heading inside as the night air continued to get colder. 
     Back in the main hallway, we approached the stairs. The first room off the landing was a bedroom, once again lit by candlelight. A closet in the corner was slightly ajar. I approached it slowly, reaching for the knob. I opened it.
     A skeleton was hanging from a noose inside, grinning crazily at me. I almost had a heart attack.    
     “C’mon, Jessie, you should’ve expect that!” Tim said in response to my whimpers. 
     “Fine. YOU open the next closet,” I snapped at him.
     Bryan stood up near the bed. “Nothing under here! Let’s keep going.”
     Across the hall was another bedroom where a man was sleeping on a desk in the corner.
     Bryan poked him. “Doesn’t this look just like the dummy from the study?” he asked. He was right. It was even wearing the same clothes. 
     I shrugged. “I guess they got a deal on them.”
     True to his word, Tim checked the closet. A disembodied arm reached for him when he opened the door, and I smiled at his shriek.
     Looking around, I realized that Casey wasn’t with us. 
     “Jessie! I think I found something,” she called from down the hall. 
     I ran down the hall and into another dark room. Books lined the walls. “What is it—OUCH!” I yelped, tripping over a large object and falling heavily on the floor. 
     “My shins,” I moaned. “I think they’re broken.”
     “Way to go, klutz,” Bryan said, appearing in the doorway. 
     “But look! We found the prizes!!” Casey said triumphantly. 
     I sat up. The large trunk I’d tripped over had also toppled over, and the top had sprung open.
     Sure enough, inside were the three prizes. 
     “Thanks for opening it, Jessie,” Casey said, smirking. “It was locked.”
     “I hope it was worth it,” I said, feeling knots rising on my shins already. “I need some ice.”
     “Bryan, Tim, you stay here with the prizes,” I said, getting slowly to my feet. “Casey and I will find Mrs. Downey.”
     She hurried, and I hobbled, down the stairs and out the front door. Mrs. Downey’s yellow chicken costume should’ve been easy to spot, but we didn’t see her anywhere. 
     “I guess let’s check back inside?” Casey said.
     “Um, yeah, ok.”
     The main hallway was deserted, although we heard occasional laughter and screams coming from other parts of the house. As we walked through the kitchen, the ghost popped up again. 
     “Hey, have you seen Mrs. Downey?” Casey asked it. 
     A young girl’s voice piped up. “She just came through here a few minutes ago. I think she was going to the study.”
     “Thanks,” Casey said, and the ghost bobbed up and down.
     We entered the creepy, dark study for the second time that night. Mrs. Downey wasn’t there. 
     “Uh, Casey?” I said, looking at the desk. “Notice anything missing?”
     She gasped.
     The dummy was gone.
     I smacked my forehead. “We’re idiots! That wasn’t a dummy. It must’ve been the thief!”
     Casey frowned. “Then why did Mrs. Downey tell us it was?”
     “No idea. We’ll ask her when we find her.”
     In the silence, a muffled pounding issued from the closet across the hall from the study. Casey gulped. We edged towards the closet. 
     “It’s your turn,” I said to Casey, who rolled her eyes. 
     “Fine. One, two, three!” She pulled open the door. 
     “Mrs. Downey!” we exclaimed together. She looked terrified. Her hands were tied, and her mouth was gagged with what looked like a sock.
     “Girls! Thank goodness,” she said, after we pulled off the gag. “It was that dummy! I came into the study and he attacked me!”
     “Right,” I said, pulling on the knotted ropes. “We found the prizes, and we figured out that he was the thief. I think he’s still in the house!”
     “I’m calling the police,” Mrs. Downey said as soon as her hands were free. “We need to get everyone out of the house.”
     “Tim and Bryan are upstairs with the prizes,” I said. “Casey and I will go get them, and we’ll meet you outside.”
     She hesitated, but agreed. “Be careful!”
     We headed for the stairs, and someone in a mummy costume came rushing down the stairs, bumping into me. 
     Casey stuck her head in the first bedroom. “Big surprise, he’s gone,” she said.
     Tim and Bryan were still in the library. “What took so long?” Bryan asked.
     Casey filled them in. “Let’s take these prizes and get out of here,” she added. 
     I looked at the doorway and gasped. The dummy was watching us.
     “It’s him!” I yelled, galloping to the doorway and ignoring the pain in my shins. He had a head start and rushed down the stairs. “Oh, no, you don’t!” I leapt the last five stairs and landed on him in a flying tackle. 
     “Oooof!” He struggled slightly, but I had knocked the wind out of him. 
     Casey, Bryan, and Tim caught up with us. “Way to go, Jess!” Tim said appreciatively. “Look, here come the police.”
     Mrs. Downey stepped in the front door. “My goodness! You caught him!” 
     “Yeah. Who are you, anyway?” I asked, getting off the dummy so he could speak.
     He glared at me. He had straight brown hair and dark eyes and looked like he was in his early twenties. “My name is Walt Douglas. I’m a drama student at Brent State. I just needed some extra cash and thought that this would be an easy way to get it, playing dead.”
     “I knew you weren’t a dummy,” Bryan added helpfully.
     Walt sighed. 
     “How can I thank you enough?” Mrs. Downey asked, smiling brightly. “We’ll be able to have the costume contest after all now!”
     “That’s easy,” I said. “Vote for Amelia!”