I'd been inside the Andersz's house fifteen minutes, maybe less, but the wind had whipped the late afternoon light over the horizon, and the Mountain had faded from red to grey-black, motionless now on the surface of the water like an oil tanker, one of those massive, passing ships on which no people were visible, ever. I never liked my neighborhood, but I hated it after sundown, the city gone, the Sound indistinguishable from the black, starless sky, no one walking. It was like we were someone's toy set that had been closed up in its box and snapped shut for the night.
"Where are we going?" Kelly Mack said, her voice sharp, fed up. She'd been sick of us, lately. Sick of Peter.
"Yeah," I said, rousing myself. I didn't want to soap car-windows or throw rocks at streetsigns or put on rubber masks and scare trick-or-treaters, exactly, but those were the things we did. And we had no supplies.
Peter closed his eyes, leaned his head back, took a deep breath of the rushing air and held it. He looked almost peaceful. I couldn't remember seeing him that way. It was startling. Then he stuck one trembling arm out in front of him, pointed at me, and his eyes sprung open.
"Do you know
" he said, his voice deep, accented, a perfect imitation, "what that bell does?"
I clapped my hands. "That bell
" I said, in the closest I could get to the same voice, and the Mack sisters stared at us, baffled, which made me grin even harder, "raises the dead."
"What are you babbling about?" said Kelly to Peter, but Jenny was looking at me, seawater-eyes curious and strange.
"You know Mr. Paars?" I asked her.
But of course she didn't. The Macks had moved here less than a year and a half ago, and I hadn't seen Mr. Paars, I realized, in considerably longer. Not since the night of the bell, in fact. I looked at Peter. His grin was as wide as mine felt. He nodded at me. We'd been friends a long time, I realized. Almost half my life.
Of course, I didn't say that. "A long time ago," I told the Macks, feeling like a longshoreman, a lighthouse keeper, someone with stories who lived by the sea, "there was this man. An old, white haired-man. He ate lutefiskit's fish, it smells awful, I don't really know what it isand stalked around the neighborhood, scaring everybody."
"He had this cane," Peter said, and I waited for him to go on, join me in the telling, but he didn't.
"All black," I said. "Kind of scaly. Ribbed, or something. It didn't look like a cane. And it had this silver dog's head on it, with fangs. A doberman"
" said Kelly Mack, though Jenny seemed to be enjoying listening.
"He used to bop people with it. Kids. Homeless people. Whoever got in his way. He stomped around 15th Street terrorizing everyone. Two years ago, on the first Halloween we were allowed out alone, right about this time of night, Peter and I spotted him coming out of the hardware store. It's not there anymore, it's that empty space next to the place where the movie theatre used to be. Anyway, we saw him there, and we followed him home."
Peter waved us out of his yard, toward the Locks. Again, I waited, but when he glanced at me, the grin was gone. His face was normal, neutral, maybe, and he didn't say anything.
"He lives down there," I said, gesturing to the south toward the Sound. "Way past all the other houses. Past the end of the street. Practically in the water."
Despite what Peter had said, we didn't head that way. Not then. We wandered toward the Locks, into the park. The avenue between the pine trees was empty except for a scatter of solitary bums on benches, wrapping themselves in shredded jackets and newspapers as the night nailed itself down and the dark billowed around us in the wind-gusts like the sides of a tent. In the roiling trees, black birds perched on the branches, silent as gargoyles.
"There aren't any other houses that close to Mr. Paars's," I said. "The street turns to dirt, and it's always wet because it's down by the water. There are these long, empty lots full of weeds, and a couple sheds, I don't know what's in them or who would own them. Anyway, right where the pavement ends, Peter and I dropped back and just kind of hung out near the last house until Mr. Paars made it to his yard. God, Peter, you remember his yard?"
Instead of answering, Peter lead us between the low stone buildings to the canal, where we watched the water swallow the last streaks of daylight like some monstrous whale gulping plankton. The only boats in the slips were two sailboats, sails furled, rocking as the waves slapped against them. The only person I saw on either stood at the stern of the boat closest to us, head hooded in a green oil-slicker, face aimed out to sea.
"Think I could hit him from here?" said Peter, and I flinched, looked at his fists expecting to see stones, but he was just asking. "Tell them the rest," he said.
I glanced at the Macks, was startled to see them holding hands, leaning against the rail over the canal, though they were watching us, not the water. "Come on, already," Kelly said, but Jenny just raised her eyebrows at me. Behind her, seagulls dipped and tumbled on the wind like shreds of cloud that had been ripped loose.
"We waited, I don't know, a while. It was cold. Remember how cold it was? We were wearing winter coats and mittens. It wasn't windy like this, but it was freezing. At least that made the dirt less muddy when we finally went down there. We passed the sheds and the trees, and there was no one, I mean no one, around. Too cold for any trick-or-treating anywhere around here, even if anyone was going to. And there wasn't anywhere to go on that street, regardless.
"Anyway. It's weird. Everything's all flat down there, and then right as you get near the Paars place, this little forest springs up, all these thick firs. We couldn't really see anything."
"Except that it was light," Peter murmured.
"Yeah. Bright light. Mr. Paars had his yard floodlit, for intruders, we figured. We thought he was probably paranoid. So we snuck off the road when we got close and went into the trees. In there, it was wet. Muddy, too. My mom was so mad when I got home. Pine needles sticking to me everywhere. She said I looked like I'd been tarred and feathered. We hid in this little grove, looked into the lawn, and we saw the bell."
Now Peter turned around, his hands flung wide to either side. "Biggest fucking bell you've ever seen in your life," he said.
"What are you talking about?" said Kelly.
"It was in this
pavilion," I started, not sure how to describe it. "Gazebo, I guess. All white and round, like a carousel, except the only thing inside was this giant white bell, like a church bell, hanging from the ceiling on a chain. And all the lights in the yard were aimed at it."
"Weird," said Jenny, leaning against her sister.
"Yeah. And that house. It's real dark, and real old. Black wood or something, all sort of falling apart. Two stories, kind of big. It looked like four or five of the sheds we passed sort of stacked on top of each other and squashed together. But the lawn was beautiful. Green, mowed perfectly, like a baseball stadium."
"Kind of," Peter whispered. He turned from the canal and wandered away again, back between buildings down the tree-lined lane.
A shiver swept up the skin on my back as I realized, finally, why we were going back to the Paars's house. I'd forgotten, until that moment, how scared we'd been. How scared Peter had been. Probably, Peter had been thinking about this for two years.
"It was all so strange," I said to the Macks, all of us watching the bums in their rattling paper blankets and the birds clinging by their talons to the branches and eyeing us as we passed. "All that outside light, the house falling apart and no lights on in there, no car in the driveway, that huge bell. So we just looked for a long time. Then Peter saidI remember this, exactly'He just leaves something shaped like that hanging there. And he expects us not to ring it.'
"Then, finally, we realized what was in the grass."
By now, we were out of the park, back among the duplexes, and the wind had turned colder, though it wasn't freezing, exactly. In a way, it felt good, fresh, like a hard slap in the face.
"I want a shrimp-and-chips," Kelly said, gesturing over her shoulder toward 15th Street, where the little fry-stand still stayed open next to the Dairy Queen, although the Dairy Queen had been abandoned.
"I want to go see this Paars house," said Jenny. "Stop your whining." She sounded cheerful, fierce, the way she did when she played Dig Dug or threw her hand in the air at school. She was smart, too, not Peter-smart, but as smart as me, at least. And I think she'd seen the trace of fear in Peter, barely there but visible in his skin like a fossil, something long dead and never before seen, and it fascinated her. That's what I was thinking when she reached out casually and grabbed my hand. Then I stopped thinking at all. "Tell me about the grass," she said.
"It was like a circle," I said, my fingers still, my palm flat against hers. Even when she squeezed, I held still. I didn't know what to do, and I didn't want Peter to turn around. If Kelly had noticed, she didn't say anything. "Cut right in the grass. A pattern. A circle, with this upside down triangle inside it, and"
"How do you know it was upside down?" Jenny asked.
"How do you know you were even looking at it the right way?"
"Shut up," said Peter, quick and hard, not turning around, leading us onto the street that dropped down to the Sound, to the Paars house. Then he did turn around, and he saw our hands. But he didn't say anything. When he was facing forward again, Jenny squeezed once more, and I gave a feeble squeeze back.
We walked half a block in silence, but that just made me more nervous. I could feel Jenny's thumb sliding along the outside of mine, and it made me tingly, terrified. I said, "Upside down. Right-side up. Whatever. It was a symbol, a weird one. It looked like an eye."
"Old dude must have had a hell of a lawn-mower," Kelly muttered, glanced at Peter's back, and stopped talking, just in time, I thought. Mr. Andersz was right. She was smart, too.
"It kind of made you not want to put your foot in the grass," I continued. "I don't know why. It just looked wrong. Like it really could see you. I can't explain."
"Didn't make me want not to put my foot in the grass," Peter said.
I felt Jenny look at me. Her mouth was six inches or so from my hair, my ear. It was too much. My hand twitched and I let go. Blushing, I glanced at her. She looked surprised, and she drifted away toward her sister.
"That's true," I said, wishing I could call Jenny back. "Peter stepped right out."
On our left, the last of the duplexes slid away, and we came to the end of the pavement. In front of us, the dirt road rolled down the hill, red-brown and wet and bumpy, like some stretched, cut-out tongue on the ground. I remembered the way Peter's duck-boots had seemed to float on the surface of Mr. Paars's floodlit green lawn, as though he was walking on water.
"Hey," I said, though Peter had already stepped onto the dirt and was strolling, fast and purposeful, down the hill. "Peter," I called after him, though I followed, of course. The Macks were beside but no longer near me. "When's the last time you saw him? Mr. Paars?"
He turned around, and he was smiling, now, the smile that scared me. "Same time you did, Bubba," he said. "Two years ago tonight."
I blinked, stood still, and the wind lashed me like the end of a twisted-up towel. "How do you know when I last saw him?" I said.
Peter shrugged. "Am I wrong?"
I didn't answer. I watched Peter's face, the dark swirling around and over it, shaping it, like rushing water over stone.
"He hasn't been anywhere. Not on 15th Street. Not at the Black Anchor. Nowhere. I've been watching."
"Maybe he doesn't live there anymore," Jenny said carefully. She was watching Peter, too.
"There's a car," Peter said. "A Lincoln. Long and black. Practically a limo."
"I've seen that car," I said. "I've seen it drive by my house, right at dinner time."
"It goes down there," said Peter, gesturing toward the trees, the water, the Paars house. "Like I said, I've been watching."
And of course, he had been, I thought. If his father had let him, he'd probably have camped right here, or in the gazebo under the bell. In fact, it seemed impossible to me, given everything I knew about Peter, that he'd let two years go by.
"Exactly what happened to you two down there?" Kelly asked.
"Tell them now," said Peter. "There isn't going to be any talking once we get down there. Not until we're all finished." Dropping into a crouch, he picked at the cold, wet dirt with his fingers, watched the ferries drifting out of downtown toward Bainbridge Island, Vashon. You couldn't really make out the boats from there, just the clusters of lights on the water like clouds of lost, doomed fireflies.
"Even the grass was weird," I said, remembering the weight of my sopping pants against my legs. "It was so wet. I mean, everywhere was wet, as usual, but this was like wading in a pond. You put your foot down and the whole lawn rippled. It made the eye look like it was winking. At first we were kind of hunched over, sort of hiding, which was ridiculous in all that light. I didn't want to walk in the circle, but Peter just strolled right through it. He called me a baby because I went the long way around."
"I called you a baby because you were being one," Peter said, but not meanly, really.
"We kept expecting lights to fly on in the house. Or dogs to come out. It just seemed like there would be dogs. But there weren't. We got up to the gazebo, which was the only place in the whole yard with shadows, because it was surrounded by all these trees. Weird trees. They were kind of stunted. Not pines, either, they're like birch trees, I guess. But short. And their bark is black."
"Felt weird, too," Peter muttered, straightening up, wiping his hands down his coat. "It just crumbled when you rubbed it in your hands, like one of those soft block-erasers, you know what I mean?"
"We must have stood there ten minutes. More. It was so quiet. You could hear the Sound, a little, although there aren't any waves there or anything. You could hear the pine trees dripping, or maybe it was the lawn. But there weren't any birds. And there wasn't anything moving in that house. Finally, Peter started toward the bell. He took exactly one step into the gazebo, and one of those dwarf-trees walked right off its roots into his path, and both of us started screaming."
"What?" said Jenny.
"I didn't scream," said Peter. "And he hit me."
"He didn't hit you," I said.
"Yes he did."
"Could you shut up and let Andrew finish?" said Kelly, and Peter lunged, grabbing her slicker in his fists and shoving her hard and then yanking her forward so that her head snapped back on its stalk like a decapitated flower and then snapped into place again.
It had happened so fast that neither Jenny or I had moved, but Jenny hurtled forward now, raking her nails down Peter's face, and he said, "OW!" and fell back, and she threw her arms around Kelly's shoulders. For a few seconds, they stood like that, and then Kelly put her own arms up and eased Jenny away. To my astonishment, I saw that she was laughing.
"I don't think I'd do that again, if I were you," she said to Peter, her laughter quick and hard, as though she was spitting teeth.
Peter put a hand to his cheek, gazing at the blood that came away on his fingers. "Ow," he said again.
"Let's go home," Jenny said to her sister.
No one answered right away. Then Peter said, "Don't." After a few seconds, when no one reacted, he said, "You've got to see the house." He was going to say more, I think, but what else was there to say? I felt bad, without knowing why. He was like a planet we visited, cold and rocky and probably lifeless, and we kept coming because it was all so strange, so different than what we knew. He looked at me, and what I was thinking must have flashed in my face, because he blinked in surprise, turned away, and started down the road without looking back. We all followed. Planet, dark star, whatever he was, he created orbits.
"So the tree hit Peter," Jenny Mack said quietly when we were halfway down the hill, almost to the sheds.
"It wasn't a tree. It just seemed like a tree. I don't know how we didn't see him there. He had to have been watching us the whole time. Maybe he knew we'd followed him. He just stepped out of the shadows and kind of whacked Peter across the chest with his cane. That black dog-head cane. He did kind of look like a tree. His skin was all gnarly, kind of dark. If you rubbed him between your fingers, he'd probably have crumbled, too. And his hair was so white. A tree that was way too old.
"And his voice. It was like a bullfrog, even deeper. He spoke real slow. He said, 'Boy. Do you know what that bell does?' And then he did the most amazing thing of all. The scariest thing. He looked at both of us, real slow. Then he dropped his cane. Just dropped it to his side. And he smiled, like he was daring us to go ahead. 'That bell raises the dead. Right up out of the ground.'"
"Look at these," Kelly Mack murmured as we walked between the sheds.
"Raises the dead," I said.
"Yeah, I heard you. These are amazing."
And they were. I'd forgotten. The most startling thing, really, was that they were still standing. They'd all sunk into the swampy grass on at least one side, and none of them had roofs, not whole roofs, anyway, and the window-slots gaped, and the wind made a rattle as it rolled through them, like waves over seashells, empty things that hadn't been empty always. They were too small to have been boat sheds, I thought, had to have been for tools and things. But tools to do what?
In a matter of steps, they were behind us, between us and the homes we knew, the streets we walked. We reached the ring of pines around the Paars house, and it was different, worse. I didn't realize how, but Peter did.
"No lights," he said.
For a while, we just stood in the blackness while saltwater and pine-resin smells glided over us like a mist. There wasn't any moon, but the water beyond the house reflected what light there was, so we could see the long, black Lincoln in the dirt driveway, the house and the gazebo beyond it. After a minute or so, we could make out the bell, too, hanging like some bloated, white bat from the gazebo ceiling.
"It is creepy," Jenny said.
"Ya think?" I said, but I didn't mean to, it was just what I imagined Peter would have said if he were saying anything. "Peter, I think Mr. Paars is gone. Moved, or something."
"Good," he said. "Then he won't mind." He stepped out onto the lawn and said, "Fuck."
"What?" I asked, shoulders hunching, but Peter just shook his head.
"Grass. It's a lot longer. And it's wet as hell."
"What happened after 'That bell raises the dead?'" Jenny asked.
I didn't answer right away. I wasn't sure what Peter wanted me to say. But he just squinted at the house, didn't even seem to be listening. I almost took Jenny's hand. I wanted to. "We ran."
"Both of you? Hey, Kell
But Kelly was already out on the grass next to Peter, smirking as her feet sank. Peter glanced at her, cautiously, I thought. Uncertain. "You would have, too," he said.
"I might have," said Kelly.
Then we were all on the grass, holding still, listening. The wind rushed through the trees as though filling a vacuum. I thought I could hear the Sound, not waves, just the dead, heavy wet. But there were no gulls, no bugs.
Once more, Peter strolled straight for that embedded circle in the grass, still visible despite the depth of the lawn, like a manta-ray half-buried in seaweed. When Peter's feet crossed the corners of the upside-down trianglethe tear-ducts of the eyeI winced, then felt silly. For all I knew, it was a corporate logo; it looked about that menacing. I started forward, too. The Macks came with me. I walked in the circle, though I skirted the edge of the triangle. Step on a crack and all. I didn't look behind to see what the Macks did, I was too busy watching Peter as his pace picked up. He was practically running, straight for the gazebo, and then he stopped.
"Hey," he said.
I'd seen it, too, I thought, feeling my knees lock as my nervousness intensified. In the lone upstairs window, there'd been a flicker. Maybe. Just one, for a single second, and then it was gone again. "I saw it," I called, but Peter wasn't listening to me. He was moving straight toward the front door. And anyway, I realized, he hadn't been looking upstairs.
"What the hell's he doing?" Kelly said as she strolled past me, but she didn't stop for an answer. Jenny did, though.
"Andrew, what's going on?" she said, and I looked at her eyes, green and shadowy as the grass, but that just made me edgier, still.
I shook my head. For a moment, Jenny stood beside me. Finally, she shrugged and followed her sister. None of them looked back, which meant, I thought, that there really hadn't been rustling behind us just now, back in the pines. When I whipped my head around, I saw nothing but trees and twitching shadows.
"Here, puss-puss-puss," Peter called softly. If the grass had been less wet and I'd been less unsettled, I'd have flopped on my back and flipped my feet in the air at him, the seal's send-off. Instead, I came forward.
The house, like the sheds, seemed to have sunk sideways into the ground. With its filthy windows and rotting planks, it looked like the abandoned hull of a beached ship. Around it, the leafless branches of the dwarf-trees danced like the limbs of paper skeletons.
"Now, class," said Peter, still very quietly. "What's wrong with this picture?"
"I assume you mean other than giant bells, weird eyeballs in the grass, empty sheds, and these whammy-ass trees," Kelly said, but Peter ignored her.
"He means the front door," said Jenny, and of course she was right.
I don't even know how Peter noticed. It was under an overhang, so that the only light that reached it reflected off the ground. But there was no doubt. The door was open. Six inches, tops. The scratched brass of the knob glinted dully, like an eye.
"Okay," I said. "So the door didn't catch when he went in, and he didn't notice."
"When who went in?" said Peter, mocking. "Thought you said he moved."
The wind kicked up, and the door glided back another few inches, then sucked itself shut with a click.
"Guess that settles that," I said, knowing it didn't even before the curtains came streaming out the single front window, grey and gauzy as cigarette smoke as they floated on the breeze. They hung there a few seconds, then glided to rest against the side of the house when the wind expired.
"Guess it does," said Peter softly, and he marched straight up the steps, pushed open the door, and disappeared into the Paars house.
None of the rest of us moved or spoke. Around us, tree-branches tapped against each other, the side of the house. For the second time I sensed someone behind me and spun around. Night-dew sparkled in the lawn like broken glass, and one of the shadows of the towering pines seemed to shiver back, as though the trees had inhaled it. Otherwise, there was nothing. I thought about Mr. Paars, that dog-head cane with its silver fangs.
"What's he trying to prove?" Kelly asked, a silly question where Peter was concerned, really. It wasn't about proving. We all knew that.
Jenny said, "He's been in there a long time," and Peter stuck his head out the window, the curtain floating away from him.
"Come see this," he said, and ducked back inside.
Hesitating, I knew, was pointless. We all knew it. We went up the stairs together, and the door drifted open before we even touched it. "Wow," said Kelly staring straight ahead, and Jenny took my hand again, and then we were all inside. "Wow," Kelly said again.
Except for a long, wooden table folded and propped against the staircase like a lifeboat, all the furniture we could see had been draped in white sheets. The sheets rose and rearranged themselves in the breeze, which was constant and everywhere, because all the windows had been flung wide open. Leaves chased each other across the dirt-crusted hardwood floor, and scraps of paper flapped in mid-air like giant moths before settling on the staircase or the backs of chairs or blowing out the windows.
Peter appeared in a doorway across the foyer from us, his black hair bright against the deeper blackness of the rooms behind him. "Don't miss the den," he said. "I'm going to go look at the kitchen." Then he was gone again.
Kelly had started away, now, too, wandering into the living room to our right, running her fingers over the tops of a covered couch as she passed it. One of the paintings on the wall, I noticed, had been covered rather than removed, and I wondered what it was. Kelly drew up the cover, peered beneath it, then dropped it and stepped deeper into the house. I started to follow, but Jenny pulled me the other way, and we went left into what must have been Mr. Paars's den.
"Whoa," Jenny said, and her fingers slid between mine and tightened.
In the dead center of the room, amidst discarded file folders that lay where they'd been tossed and empty envelopes with plastic address-windows that flapped and chattered when the wind filled them, sat an enormous, oak, rolltop-desk. The top was gone, broken away, and it lay against the room's lone window like the cracked shell of a dinosaur egg. On the surface of the desk, in black, felt frames, a set of six photographs had been arranged in a semi-circle.
"It's like the top of a tombstone," Jenny murmured. "You know what I mean? Like a
what do you call it?"
"Family vault," I said. "Mausoleum."
"One of those."
Somehow, the fact that two of the frames turned out to be empty made the array even more unsettling. The other four held individual pictures of what had to be brothers and one sisterthey all had flying white hair, razor-blue eyesstanding, each in turn, on the top step of the gazebo outside, with the great bell looming behind them, bright white and all out of proportion, like the Mountain on a too-clear day.
"Andrew," Jenny said, her voice nearly a whisper, and in spite of the faces in the photographs and the room we were in, I felt it all over me. "Why Struwwelpeter?"
"What?" I said, mostly just to make her speak again.
"Struwwelpeter. Why does Mr. Andersz call him that?"
"Oh. It's from some kids' book. My mom actually had it when she was little. She said it was about some boy who got in trouble because he wouldn't cut his hair or cut his nails."
Jenny narrowed her eyes. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"I don't know. Except my mom said the pictures in the book were really scary. She said Struwwelpeter looked like Freddy Krueger with a 'fro."
Jenny burst out laughing, but she stopped fast. Neither of us, I think, liked the way laughter sounded in that room, in that house, with those black-bordered faces staring at us. "Struwwelpeter," she said, rolling the name carefully on her tongue, like a little kid daring to lick a frozen flagpole.
"It's what my mom called me when I was little," said Peter from the doorway, and Jenny's fingers clenched hard and then fell free of mine. Peter didn't move toward us. He just stood there while we watched, paralyzed. After a few, long seconds, he added, "When I kicked the shit out of barbers, because I hated having my haircut. Then when I was just being bad. She'd say that instead of screaming at me. It made me cry." From across the foyer, in the living room, maybe, we heard a single, soft bump, as though something had fallen over.
With a shrug, Peter released us and stepped past us back into the foyer. We followed, not touching, now, not even looking at each other. I felt guilty, amazed, strange. When we passed the windows the curtains billowed up and brushed across us.
"Hey, Kelly," Peter whispered loudly into the living room. He whispered it again, then abruptly turned our way and said, "You think he's dead?"
"Looks like it," I answered, glancing down the hallway toward the kitchen, into the shadows in the living room, which seemed to have shifted, somehow, the sheet some way different as it lay across the couch. I couldn't place the feeling, it was like watching an actor playing a corpse, knowing he was alive, trying to catch him breathing.
"But the car's here," Peter said. "The Lincoln. Hey, KELLY!" His shout made me wince, and Jenny cringed back toward the front door, but she shouted, too.
"Oh, what is that?" I murmured, my whole spine twitching like a severed electrical wire, and when Jenny and Peter looked at me, I pointed upstairs.
"Wh" Jenny started, and then it happened again, and both of them saw it. From under the half-closed door at the top of the staircasethe only door we could see from where we werecame a sudden slash of light which disappeared instantly, like a snake's tongue flashing in and out.
We stood there at least a minute, maybe more. Even Peter looked uncertain, not scared, quite, but something had happened to his face. I couldn't place it right then. It made me nervous, though. And it made me like him more than I had in a long, long time.
Then, without warning, Peter was halfway up the stairs, his feet stomping dust out of each step as he slammed them down, saying, "Fucking hilarious, Kelly. Here I come. Ready or not." He stopped halfway up and turned to glare at us. Mostly at me. "Come on."
"Let's go," I said to Jenny, reached out on my own for the first time and touched her elbow, but to my surprise she jerked it away from me. "Jenny, she's up there."
"I don't think so," she whispered.
"Come on," Peter hissed.
"Andrew, something's wrong. Stay here."
I looked into her face, smart, steely Jenny Mack, first girl ever to look at me like that, first girl I'd ever wanted to, and right then, for the only time in my life, I feltwithin methe horrible thrill of Peter's power, knew the secret of it. It wasn't bravery and it wasn't smarts, although he had both those things in spades. It was simply the willingness to trade. At any given moment, Peter Andersz would trade anyone for anything, or at least could convince people that he would. Knowing you could do that, I thought, would be like holding a grenade, tossing it back and forth in the terrified face of the world.
I looked at Jenny's eyes, filling with tears, and I wanted to kiss her, though I couldn't even imagine how to initiate something like that. What I said, in my best Peter-voice, was, "I'm going upstairs. Coming or staying?"
I can't explain. I didn't mean anything. It felt like playacting, no more real than holding her hand had been. We were just throwing on costumes, dancing around each other, scaring each other. Trick or treat.
"KELLY?" Jenny called past me, blinking, crying openly, now, and I started to reach for her again, and she shoved me, hard, toward the stairs.
"Hurry up," said Peter, with none of the triumph I might have expected in his voice.
I went up, and we clumped, side by side, to the top of the stairs. When we reached the landing, I looked back at Jenny. She was propped in the front door, one hand on the doorknob and the other wiping at her eyes as she jerked her head from side to side, looking for her sister.
At our feet, light licked under the door again. Peter held up a hand, and we stood together and listened. We heard wind, low and hungry, and now I was sure I could hear the Sound lapping against the edge of the continent, crawling over the lip of it.
"OnetwothreeBOO!" Peter screamed and flung open the door, which banged against a wall inside and bounced back. Peter kicked it open again, and we lunged through into what must have been a bedroom, once, and was now just a room, a blank space, with nothing in it at all.
Even before the light swept over us again, from outside, from the window, I realized what it was. "Lighthouse," I said, breathless. "Greenpoint Light."
Peter grinned. "Oh, yeah. Halloween."
Every year, the suburbs north of us set Greenpoint Light running again on Halloween, just for fun. One year, they'd even rented ferries and decked them out with seaweed and parents in pirate costumes and floated them just offshore, ghost-ships for the kiddies. We'd seen them skirting our suburb on their way up the coast.
"Do you think" I started, and Peter grabbed me hard by the elbow. "Ow," I said.
"Listen," snapped Peter.
I heard the house groan as it shifted. I heard paper flapping somewhere downstairs, the front door tapping against its frame or the inside wall as it swung on the wind.
"Listen," Peter whispered, and this time I heard it. Very low. Very faint, like a finger rubbed along the lip of a glass, but unmistakable once you realized what it was. Outside, in the yard, someone had just lifted the tongue of the bell and tapped it, oh so gently, against the side.
I stared at Peter, and he stared back. Then he leapt to the window, peering down. I thought he was going to punch the glass loose from the way his shoulders jerked.
"Well?" I said.
"All I can see is the roof." He shoved the window even further open than it already was. "CLEVER GIRLS!" he screamed, and waited, for laughter, maybe, a full-on bong of the bell, something. Abruptly, he turned to me, and the light rolled across him, waist-high, and when it receded, he looked different, damp with it. "Clever girls," he said.
I whirled, stepped into the hall, looked down. The front door was open, and Jenny was gone. "Peter?" I whispered, and I heard him swear as he emerged onto the landing beside me. "You think they're outside?"
Peter didn't answer right away. He had his hands jammed in his pockets, his eyes cast down at the floor. He shuffled in place. "The thing is, Andrew," he said, "there's nothing to do."
"What are you talking about?"
"There's nothing to do."
"Find the girls?"
"Ring the bell?"
"They rang it."
"You're the one who brought us out here. What were you expecting?"
He glanced back at the bedroom's bare walls, the rectangular, dustless space in the floor where, until very recently, a bed or rug must have been, the empty light fixture overhead. Struwwelpeter. My friend. "Opposition," he said, and shuffled off down the hall.
"Where are you going?" I called after him.
He turned, and the look on his face stunned me, it had been years since I'd seen it. The last time was in second grade, right after he punched Robert Case, who was twice his size, in the face and ground one of Robert's eyeglass-lenses into his eye. The last time anyone who knew him had dared to fight him. He looked
"Coming?" he said.
I almost followed him. But I felt bad about leaving Jenny. And I wanted to see her and Kelly out on the lawn, pointing through the window at us and laughing. And I didn't want to be in that house anymore. And it was exhausting being with Peter, trying to read him, dancing clear of him.
"I'll be outside," I said.
He shrugged and disappeared through the last unopened door at the end of the hall. I listened for a few seconds, heard nothing, turned, and started downstairs. "Hey, Jenny?" I called, got no answer. I was three steps from the bottom before I realized what was wrong.
In the middle of the foyer floor, amidst a swirl of leaves and paper, Kelly Mack's black baseball cap lay upside down like an empty tortoise shell. "Um," I said to no one, to myself, took one more uncertain step down, and the front door swung back on its hinges.
I just stared, at first. I couldn't even breathe, let alone scream, it was like I had an apple-core lodged in my throat. I just stared into the white spray-paint on the front door, the triangle-within-a-circle. A wet, wide-open eye. My legs wobbled, and I grabbed for the bannister, slipped down to the bottom step, held myself still. I should scream, I thought. I should get Peter down here, and both of us should run. I didn't even see the hand until it clamped hard around my mouth.
For a second, I couldn't do anything at all, and that was way too long, because before I could lunge away or bite down, a second hand snaked around my waist, and I was yanked off my feet into the blackness to my left and slammed against the living room wall.
I wasn't sure when I'd closed my eyes, but now I couldn't make them open. My head rang, and my skin felt tingly, tickly, as though it was dissolving into the atoms that made it up, all of them racing in a billion different directions, and soon there'd be nothing left of me, just a scatter of energy and a spot on Mr. Paars's dusty, decaying floor.
"Did I hurt you?" whispered a voice I knew, close to my ears. It still took me a long time to open my eyes. "Just nod or shake your head."
Slowly, forcing my eyes open, I nodded.
"Good. Now sssh," said Mr. Andersz, and released me.
Behind him, both Mack sisters stood grinning.
"You like the cap?" Kelly said. "The cap's a good touch, no?"
"Sssh," Mr. Andersz said. "Please. I beg you."
"You should see you," Jenny whispered, sliding up close. "You look so damn scared."
"He followed us to see if we were doing anything horrible. He saw us come in here, and he had this idea to get back at Peter."
I gaped at Jenny, then Mr. Andersz, who was peering, very carefully, around the corner, up the stairs.
"Not to get back," he said, so serious. It was the same voice he'd used in his own front hallway earlier that evening. He'd never looked more like his son than he did right then. "To reach out. Reach him. Someone's got to do something. He's a good boy. He could be. Now, please. Don't spoil this."
Everything about Mr. Andersz at that moment astounded me. But watching him revealed nothing further. He stood at the edge of the living room, shoulders hunched, hair tucked tight under his dock-worker's cap, waiting. Slowly, my gaze swung back to Jenny, who continued to grin in my direction, but not at me, certainly not with me. And I knew I'd lost her.
"This was about Peter," I said. "You could have just stuck your head out and waved me down."
"Yep," said Jenny, and watched Mr. Andersz, not me.
Upstairs, a door creaked, and Peter's voice rang out. "Hey, Andrew."
To Jenny's surprise and Mr. Andersz's horror, I almost answered. I stepped forward, opened my mouth. I'm sure Jenny thought I was getting back at her, turning the tables again, but mostly, I didn't like what Mr. Andersz was doing. I think I sensed the danger in it. I might have been the only one.
But I was twelve. And Peter certainly deserved it. And Mr. Andersz was my teacher, and my friend's father. I closed my mouth, sank back into the shadows, and did not move again until it was over.
"ANDREW, I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME!" Peter shouted, stepping onto the landing. He came, clomp clomp clomp, toward the stairs. "ANNN-DREW!" Then, abruptly, we heard him laugh. Down he came, his shoes clattering over the steps. I thought he might charge past us, but he stopped, right where I did.
Beside the couch, under the draped painting, Kelly Mack pointed at her own hatless head and mouthed, "Oh, yeah."
But it was the eye on the door, I thought, not the cap. Only the eye would have stopped him, because like meand faster than mePeter would have realized that neither Mack sister, smart as they were, would have thought of it. Even if they'd had spray paint. Mr. Andersz had brought spray paint? Clearly, he'd been planning thisor something like thisfor quite some time. If he was the one who'd done it, that is.
"What the fuck," Peter muttered. He came down a step. Another. His feet touched flat floor, and still Mr. Andersz held his post.
Then, very quietly, he said, "Boo."
It was as if he'd punched an ejector-seat button. Peter flew through the front door, hands flung up to ward off the eye as he sailed past it. He was fifteen feet from the house, still flying, when he realized what he'd heard. We all saw it hit him. He jerked in mid-air like a hooked marlin reaching the end of a harpoon rope.
For a few seconds, he just stood in the wet grass with his back to us, quivering. Kelly had sauntered past Mr. Andersz onto the front porch, laughing. Mr. Andersz, I noticed, was smiling, too, weakly. Even Jenny was laughing quietly beside me.
But I was watching Peter's back, his whole body vibrating like an imploded building after the charge has gone off, right at the moment of collapse. "No," I said.
When Peter finally turned around, though, his face was his regular face, inscrutable, a little pale. The spikes in his hair looked almost silly in the shadows, and made him look younger. A naughty little boy. Calvin with no Hobbes.
"So he is dead," Peter said.
Mr. Andersz stepped outside. Kelly was slapping her leg, but no one paid her any attention.
"Son," said Mr. Andersz, and he stretched one hand out, as though to call Peter to him. "I'm sorry. It was
I thought you might laugh."
"He's dead, right?"
The smile was gone from Mr. Andersz's face now, and from Jenny's, I noted when I glanced her way. "Kelly, shut up," I heard her say to her sister, and Kelly stopped giggling.
"Did you know he used to teach at the school?" Mr. Andersz asked, startling me.
"Sixth grade science. Biology, especially. Years ago. Kids didn't like him. Yes, Peter, he died a week or so ago. He'd been very sick. We got a notice about it at school."
"Then he won't mind," said Peter, too quietly, "if I go ahead and ring that bell. Right?"
Mr. Andersz didn't know about the bell, I realized. He didn't understand. I watched him look at his son, watched the weight he always seemed to be carrying settle back around his shoulders, lock into place like a yoke. He bent forward, a little.
"My son," he said. Uselessly.
So I shoved past him. I didn't mean to push him, I just needed him out of the way, and anyway, he gave no resistance, bent back like a plant.
"Peter, don't do it," I said.
The eyes, black and mesmerizing, swung down on me. "Oh. Andrew. Forgot you were here."
It was, of course, the cruelest thing he could have said, the source of his power over me and the reason I was with himother than the fact that I liked him, I mean. It was the thing I feared most, in general, no matter where I was.
" I said, thinking of the dog's head-cane, that deep and frozen voice, but thinking more, somehow, about my friend, rocketing away from us now at incomprehensible speed. Because that's what he seemed to be doing, to me.
"Wouldn't it be great?" said Peter. And then, unexpectedly, he grinned at me. He would never forget I was there, I realized. Couldn't. I was all he had.
He turned and walked straight across the grass. The Mack sisters and Mr. Andersz followed, all of them seeming to float in the long, wet green like seabirds skimming the surface of the ocean. I did not go with them. I had the feel of Jenny's fingers in mine, and the sounds of flapping paper and whirling leaves in my ears, and Peter's last, surprising smile floating in front of my eyes, and it was enough, too much, an astonishing Halloween.
"This thing's freezing," I heard Peter say, while his father and the Macks fanned out around him, facing the house and me. He was facing away, toward the trees. "Feel this." He held the tongue of the bell toward Kelly Mack, but she'd gone silent, now, watching him, and she shook her head.
"Ready or not," he said. Then he reared back and rammed the bell-tongue home.
Instinctively, I flung my hands up to my ears, but the effect was disappointing, particularly to Peter. It sounded like a dinner bell, high, a little tinny, something that might call kids or a dog out of the water or the woods at bedtime. Peter slammed the tongue against the side of the bell one more time, dropped it, and the peal floated away over the Sound, dissipating into the salt air like seagull-cry.
For a few breaths, barely any time at all, we all stood where we were. Then Jenny Mack said, "Oh." I saw her hand snake out, grab her sister's, and her sister looked up, right at me, I thought. The two Macks stared at each other. Then they were gone, hurtling across the yard, straight across that wide-open white eye, flying toward the forest.
Peter whirled, looked at me, and his mouth opened, a little. I couldn't hear him, but I saw him murmur, "Wow," and a new smile exploded, one I couldn't even fathom, and he was gone, too, sprinting for the trees, passing the Macks as they all vanished into the shadows.
"Uh," said Mr. Andersz, backing, backing, and his expression confused me most of all. He was almost laughing. "I'm so sorry," he said. "We didn't realize
" He turned and chased after his son. And still, somehow, I thought they'd all been looking at me, until I heard the single, sharp thud from the porch behind me. Wood hitting wood. Cane-into-wood.
I didn't turn around. Not then. What for? I knew what was behind me. Even so, I couldn't get my legs to move, quite, not until I heard a second thud, closer, this time, as though the thing on the porch had stepped fully out of the house, making its slow, steady way toward me. Stumbling, I kicked myself forward, put a hand down in the wet grass and the mud closed over it like a mouth. When I jerked it free, it made a disappointed, sucking sort of sound, and I heard a sort of sigh behind me, another thud, and I ran, all the way to the woods.
Hours later, we were still huddled together in the Andersz's kitchen, wolfing down Ho Hos and hot chocolate. Jenny and Kelly and Peter kept laughing, erupting into cloudbursts of excited conversation, laughing some more. Mr. Andersz laughed, too, as he boiled more water and spooned marshmallows into our mugs and told us.
The man the bell had called forth, he said, was Mr. Paars's brother. He'd been coming for years, taking care of Mr. Paars after he got too sick to look after himself, because he refused to move into a rest-home or even his brother's home.
"The Lincoln," Peter said, and Mr. Andersz nodded.
"God, poor man. He must have been inside when you all got there. He must have thought you were coming to rob the place, or vandalize it, and he went out back."
"We must have scared the living shit out of him," Peter said happily.
"Almost as much as we did you," said Kelly, and everyone was shouting, pointing, laughing again.
"Mr. Paars had been dead for days when they found him," Mr. Andersz told us. "The brother had to go away, and he left a nurse in charge, but the nurse got sick, I guess, or Mr. Paars wouldn't let her in, or something. Anyway, it was pretty awful when the brother came back. That's why the windows were all open. It'll take weeks, I bet, to air that place out."
I sat, and I sipped my cocoa, and I watched my friends chatter and eat and laugh and wave their arms around, and it dawned on me, slowly, that none of them had seen. None of them had heard. Not really. I almost said something five different times, but I never quite did, I think because of the way we all were, just for that hour, that last, magic night: triumphant, and windswept, and defiant, and together. Like real friends. Almost.
That was the last time, of course. The next summer, the Macks moved to Vancouver, although they'd slowly slipped away from Peter and me anyway by then. Mr. Andersz lost his jobthere was an incident, apparently, he just stopped teaching and sat down on the floor in the front of his classroom and swallowed an entire box of chalk, stick by stickand wound up working in the little caged-in accounting office at the used car lot in the wasteland down by the Ballard Bridge. And slowly, over a long period of time, it became more exciting, even for me, to talk about Peter than it was to be with him.
Soon, I think, my mother is going to get sick of staring at the images repeating over and over on our TV screen, the live reports from the rubble of my school and the yearbook photo of Peter and the video of him being stuffed into a police car and the names streaming across the bottom of the screen like a tornado warning, except too late. For the fifteenth time, at least, I see Steve Rourke's name go by. I should have told him, I thought, should have warned him. But he should have known. I wonder why my name isn't up there, why Peter didn't come after me. The answer, though, is obvious. He forgot I was there. Or he wants me to think he did.
It doesn't matter. Any minute, my mother's going to get up and go to bed, and she's going to tell me I should, too, and that we'll leave here, we'll get away and never come back.
"Yes," I'll say. "Soon."
"All those children," she'll say. Again. "Sweet Jesus, I can't believe it. Andrew." She'll drop her head on my shoulder and throw her arms around me and cry.
But by then, I won't be thinking about the streaming names, the people I knew who are people no longer, or what Peter might have been thinking tonight. I'll be thinking, just as I am now, about Peter in the grass outside the Paars house, at the moment he realized what we'd done to him. The way he stood there, vibrating. We didn't make him what he was. Not the Macks, not his dad, not menone of us. But it's like he said: God puts something shaped like that in the world, and then He expects us not to ring it.
And now there's only one thing left to do. As soon as my mom finally lets go, stops sobbing, and stumbles off to sleep, I'm going to sneak outside, and I'm going to go straight down the hill to the Paars house. I haven't been there since that night. I have no idea if the sheds or the house or the bell even exists, anymore.
But if they do, and if that eye in the grass, or any of its power, is still there
well, then. I'll give a little ring. And then we'll know, once and for all, whether I really did see two old men, with matching canes, on the porch of the Paars house when I glanced back right as I fled into the woods. Whether I really did hear rustling from all those sideways sheds as I flew past, as though, in each, something was sliding out of the ground. I wonder if the bell works only on the Paars family, or if it affects any recently deceased in the vicinity. Maybe the dead really can be called back, for a while, like kids from recess. And if they do come backand if they're angry, and they go looking for Peter, and they find himwell. Let the poor, brilliant, fucked-up bastard get what he deserves.