Victoria finished counting. She looked around the yard quickly. She wanted to find Mary fast and end her winning streak—once and for all. The other kids finished counting, too, and everyone spread out, looking for Mary. After several minutes, and no luck, everyone—except Mary, of course—gathered close, but not too close, to the front of the darkening house, standing under a large weeping willow tree.
“She’s gone,” one boy said. “We looked everywhere. She must’ve gone home.”
“Yeah,” echoed a little girl, “gone.”
“We should just go home—it’s getting late,” said someone else.
Victoria wasn’t convinced. In her suspicious heart of hearts, she knew Mary was somewhere, hiding—maybe even watching and laughing to herself. Victoria continued to look around, passing over the obvious hiding places they had already searched. As she glanced past the house, though, a strong gust of wind shook the porch, making the door creak loudly as it swung on its rusty hinges.
Victoria heard the creak. She looked back at the porch. There was something about that noise, but she couldn’t figure it out. The wind gusted again, swinging the dangling front door, which again creaked loudly. That noise, thought Victoria, staring at the door. She had heard it while they were counting, she realized. Could Mary have pushed past the door and gone in the house to hide, she wondered, glaring at the decrepit front door, now hanging still, partially opened.
“Let’s go look in the house,” she said to the other kids.
The kids looked at Victoria like she was crazy. Playing in the yard of a haunted house during the day and going into a haunted house as it got dark were two different things. Black windows peered down at the children like empty eye sockets, and the front porch underneath looked like the giant mouth of an evil beast. No one wanted to follow her into that dark hole to who-knew-what horrible place to meet who-knew-what horrible fate.
“Uh, are you sure, Victoria? You know what they say about that house. Mary wouldn’t go in there.”
“Yeah, and it’s getting pretty dark, too,” a scared voice added.
“Yeah, I’m sure, and yeah, I know what they say, but Mary would do anything to win, haunted house or not. That’s got to be where she is. Besides, we already looked in all the good places in the yard and she wasn’t there, so where else could she be? She’s got to be in the house,” said Victoria.
Reluctantly, the kids trudged along, slowly following Victoria onto the ominous porch.
Victoria spotted the small smear of blood on the door frame and smiled. She hurried in, like a bloodhound on the scent of an escaped convict. I’ve got you this time, Mary Jenkins, she thought to herself. Out loud, she whispered, “Victory to Victoria.”
Mary heard the kids moving around on the porch before she had found a hiding place on the main floor. She panicked and hurried up the wide grand staircase, hoping to find somewhere to hide on the second floor. The first door she peeked behind led to a cobwebbed closet—too small. The second door revealed a dusty bathroom with checkered floor tiles—still not good enough. The third room, though, was very promising.
It was the infamous master suite, supposedly the most haunted room in the house.
Mary looked quickly around the huge bedroom. Moldy wallpaper peeled off the walls and dark shadows crouched along the edges of the room. Broken chairs and tables were stacked haphazardly halfway up the wall in one corner. Torn curtains hung at the side of a shuttered window, which was lined with broken glass, looking like a mouthful of craggy teeth. Sitting next to the window were a large bed and a decrepit wooden nightstand.
The bed was definitely the centerpiece of the room. It had a gigantic carved headboard and a tattered canopy overhead, supported by large, ornate corner posts, from which faded fabric drooped lifelessly. Several water-stained pillows sat at the head of the bed. The front legs were broken, tilting the bed forward so that it nearly touched the floor.
Mary ran through the wide double-door entry and started looking. The closet was large, but empty, leaving no place to hide. Climbing behind the broken furniture looked good, but too noisy and too dangerous. She thought of climbing inside the big nightstand, but the enormous bed looked better, with perhaps just enough room for her to slide underneath it. Maybe. It looked so close to the ground that no one would think to look there, not even smarty-pants Victoria.
Mary crept to the far side near the window, grabbed the bedpost and shook it to make sure the bed was solid enough and wouldn’t fall in on her. It felt safe to her, so she dropped to the floor, leaving a small smear of blood on the post. Slithering underneath the bed, she hoped the other kids didn’t hear the squeaking floorboards as she moved around. The fit under the bed was tight, almost too tight, but she was small and wriggled to the middle and waited patiently. Dust bunnies tickled her nose, but she didn’t move, trying to breathe as quietly as possible.
After searching the first floor, Victoria climbed the staircase to the upper floor. Stairs creaked with each footstep. She looked in the small closet and then moved on to the bathroom, which was also empty. Next, she stepped down the hall and stood at the threshold of the master bedroom. She flinched, noticing that the musty, dank smell of the house seemed stronger. Still, she looked briefly around the room and then stepped in for a closer look. The fading light coming through the shuttered window made it hard to see, but Victoria thought she saw faint footprints scattered across the dusty floor.
“Maaaary,” she sing-songed, checking the large, dusty walk-in closet, but it was empty. “Maaaary,” she repeated. Then she peered carefully around the old broken nightstand, but it was empty, too. Strips of rotting curtains swayed eerily in a breeze coming through the broken window, brushing Victoria’s face. Swatting at the curtains in frustration, Victoria spun in a circle. She had been so certain Mary would be in here.
The other kids had reluctantly followed her, but they had stopped at the doorway, silently refusing to go into the haunted master suite. There was only so far they were willing to go and they were not happy about the growing shadows and gloom overtaking the house. Subconsciously, they huddled together, trying to protect themselves from the fear running wild in their overactive imaginations, half expecting the spirits of the dead Mr. and Mrs. Buckley to rise from the bed.
Victoria was ready to give up and move on to another room down the hall when her hand brushed against something wet and sticky on the corner post of the bed. She peered closely at it, recognizing the brownish red of freshly drying blood. Ha ha—gotcha, she thought, realizing where Mary must be hiding. She kept it to herself, though, thinking to have a little fun with Mary before exposing her hiding spot.
“She’s not in here,” Victoria said more loudly than necessary. “Let’s jump on this old bed and see if we can scare up the ghosts of Mr. and Mrs. Buckley. Maybe they can help us find Mary.”
Victoria stepped up onto the dusty bed and jumped up and down on it—hard. The other kids watched, horrified and fascinated at the same time, thinking that she was definitely, definitely crazy. A little gray mouse that had made a home on the inside of the old box springs scrambled out as clouds of dust poofed into the air with each jump, rusty springs squeaking in protest each time Victoria landed on the unused mattress.
Mary scooted further back into the darkness. Dust bunnies and cobwebs tickled her nose even more. She felt the rusty steel springs bounce painfully on her back with each jump, smashing her harder and harder against the dusty hardwood floor.
“Look,” said Victoria, kicking at a lump on the bed, “here’s Old Mrs. Buckley herself.” Victoria’s toe ripped through the ratty quilt and ancient feathers flew through the air from the feather pillows tucked underneath.
Relieved at seeing feathers and not evil spirits rising from the dirty old bed, the kids broke their silent truce and finally stepped into the room. They climbed on the bed and, tentatively at first, they jumped. Then, they jumped again, laughing more and more each time. And each time they smashed Mary more and more—her legs, her back, her head.
Mary gritted her teeth. She did, not want to give Victoria the satisfaction of finding her. Box springs and wooden supports smacked into Mary, bruising her and leaving welts and small cuts, but she stayed silent. Underneath her, the termite-infested floorboards creaked and groaned, sending clouds of dust to the floor below. Despite the pain, Mary remained resolute, saying nothing.
Above Mary, one little boy hesitated. “Victoria,” he said, “is she und—“
“’Shut up and jump,” she hissed at him.
“No, I won’t. This is wrong,” he said, realizing what was going on and running from the room.
Finally, Mary was about to cry out and give up when the rotted floorboards abruptly gave out. The floor broke and the heavy bed plunged through the gaping hole…