Oh, I hated the way her eyes gleamed with twisted pleasure and I so knew what she was going to ask me. And she knew I would take the dare because I would never tell her what she so desperately wanted to know. I was definitely going to suffer before this sleepover was over.
The five of us had arranged our sleeping bags in the tent like spokes on a wheel, with the lantern in the middle. I batted a moth away from my face and glared at Ashley. We’d been friends since elementary school. But right then, I wanted to punch her lights out. Instead, I said, “Dare.”
Parker, Dani and Cotton groaned. I knew what they were thinking—Ashley was going to make me pay dearly for not giving in to her deepest desire. Which was, of course, if I’d gone all the way with her boyfriend, Drew.
I’d never tell.
Ash leaned back on her trendy Timberland sleeping bag and stared up at the tent ceiling. She pursed her cute little lips, the same ones I wanted to smack, and replied, “Well, I have the most perfect dare.”
A collective ‘ohhhh’ from my three BFF made me cringe. Ashley had a mean streak and we all knew this was either going to hurt or scare the living crap out of me. Since we were in the middle of the woods, I pretty much figured it was a dare of the scariest kind. Just Ashley’s style.
She began, “Last week, Drew and I were taking a walk in the woods.”
I knew I wasn’t the only one who wondered what else they’d done in the woods and we also knew she’d gotten in her first good dig of the night—whether or not I answered her truth or dare question, she wanted to remind me who Drew belonged to now. And it wasn’t me.
“Do you remember that old tobacco barn out near Tatum creek?” she continued, staring at me, the nasty gleam returning. “I think it’d be fun to spend the night out there, don’t you?”
Oh, she would not. She couldn’t be serious.
Of course we all knew that barn. It’d been around since the slaves worked the bacca fields. The only thing holding it upright was a mass of kudzu big enough to have its own zip code.
And it was haunted.
Eight eyes watched my reaction. I tried hard to pretend I wasn’t freaking out but every single hair on my body stood up and nobody missed my shiver of horror.
“Gee, Ash. That’s kind of extreme,” Dani said.
“Yeah, just because Kate won’t tell you—,” Cotton shut her mouth and began to play with the zipper on her sleeping bag. Bless her heart, Cotton never thought before she spoke, but I wanted to hug her for sticking up for me.
Parker kicked Ashley’s foot. “You always were jealous that Kate dated Drew first.”
Ash shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. He’s mine now. And she took the dare.”
“She’s not going out to that shed alone. I’m going with her,” Parker said.
“Oh, I don’t think so. Y’all know the rules, she goes alone,” Ashley replied. She pulled her cell phone from under her stupid, fuzzy pink pillow and checked the time then looked up at me with a little grin. “How ‘bout that? It’s almost midnight. The perfect hour to start your dare.”
Ten minutes later, I tripped through the woods to the old barn, with my sleeping bag, cell phone and a big, fat dose of fake courage keeping me company. It was far enough away that when demons came to suck the soul out of my body, nobody would hear my screams. Just the way Ashley hoped.
I stopped when I reached the edge of the woods where the clearing started. The thought of entering that open field made me feel totally defenseless. A dare’s a dare, I thought and stepped out, keeping my eye on the old barn.
I hadn’t even made it halfway to the hulking building when I heard the first sound. A woman’s cry, long and shrill echoed out of the woods behind me. I’d always felt running was a waste of time, but right then I did the fifty-yard dash faster than an Olympian—right toward the barn. Something scraped the top of my head and I screamed. A cloud passed in front of the moon and in the sudden pitch blackness, I didn’t see the small stump in my path. I hit it at a dead run and screeched again when I went airborne. Lucky for me, my sleeping bag flew ahead and I landed across the roll, cushioning my fall and sliding over it to land in a heap. I laid there for a few seconds, trying to catch my breath when the second wail sounded. Sitting up, I grabbed my stuff and crabwalked backward to lean against the stump. Unrolling the sleeping bag, I wrapped it around me. My teeth began to chatter and I had a hard time catching my breath.
Then I heard the growl and it definitely wasn’t an animal. It had to be the freakiest, most evil sound ever. Coming from inside the barn, it rose and fell, warning me, I was sure, not to come any closer. That was so not going to be a problem because quite simply, I froze. I wasn’t going anywhere. My muscles were in total lockdown.
Thumps, deep and threatening, accompanied the growl, until the ground began to shake around me. The wind started to blow, cold and damp through my clothes, making me shiver harder. I burst into tears then, long overdue in my opinion. That damned Ashley was going to be so sorry when I got back to the tent. I’d give her the truth she wanted. Starting with the love letters Drew had written me a month after she’s started dating him. You want the truth, Ash? Yeah, well, you are so going to get it.
If I lived.
I don’t know how long I sat there, crying my butt off, freezing in my thin, flannel pajamas (not my attire of choice for sitting in a damp, haunted field), when footsteps approached me. And I got mad. Really mad, because I knew it was going to be Ashley or one of the other girls, coming to laugh at me. They’d probably been in on this together,
planned it all along. Oh, let’s pull a Halloween prank on Kate! I wiped my face on my sleeve and opened my eyes.
Silhouetted against the moon was a young man, down on one knee, staring at me. White shirt ripped at the neck, his suspenders holding up tattered pants, and bare-footed, he was the last thing I expected to see when I looked up. I could only stare at him in shock, though I felt no threat whatsoever even though I knew, don’t ask me how, that he was a ghost. He looked about my age. In the bluish moonlight, I could just make out smooth, dark skin, long, curly hair pulled back at his neck and a concerned look on his face.
“You hurt, Miss?”
I shook my head just as a huge thump and shriek sounded from the barn. I burst into tears again.
He looked over my shoulder toward the barn and frowned. “Don’t mind them, they can’t do nuthin’ more than scare ya.”
I smeared my nose along the edge of the sleeping bag. “Yeah well, they succeeded.” The crack of splintering wood followed by a long groan made me jump again. Didn’t these spirits ever take a breather?
Kinder than most mortal boys, the boy settled down next to me, a comforting expression on his face. “My name’s Jim,” he said and his teeth flashed white in the moonlight.
I told him my name and then we sat for a little while, listening to the creepy noises still coming from the barn. I wondered why he was a ghost. I asked, “How did you die?”
“Accident,” he shrugged. Then he said, “Why you here? I’m not thinkin’ you wanted to come.” His speech was thick like molasses.
I wasn’t sure how old he was, but I knew he wasn’t from my generation. Or my great-grandparent’s generation for that matter, so there was no way I was going to say I’d taken a dare rather than tell my so-called friend whether or not I’d had sex with her boyfriend. So instead, I said, “I didn’t have much choice.”
He frowned. “Miss, we all got choices.”
He kept his eyes down, like he wasn’t good enough to meet mine. That bugged me more than I cared to admit and I hated to think I was party to any injustice he felt. So I goaded him instead. “What was your choice? To die and stay here with these loser spirits? That must be lonely.”
“Oh no, miss. I got no reason to be lonely, why would I? You folks keep comin’ round, keepin’ me company.” I must have looked confused because he added, “You don’t think you the only one who come this way? No, Miss, I gets visitors all the time. Most come cuz they lost a bet.”
His teeth flashed bright white in the darkness. I liked his smile and the friendly vibe he had so much, I’d nearly forgotten about the evil, soul-sucking spirits around us.
“I didn’t lose a bet, I took a dare,” I admitted and tucked my chin down in the sleeping bag. Suddenly, that dare seemed incredibly immature. I felt his stare, like he was waiting for me to explain. “I had to keep a secret.”
“Secrets can be dangerous,” he replied, his tone revealing pain I couldn’t begin to imagine. My twenty-first century brain couldn’t wrap itself around the kinds of secrets slaves had lived with.
I turned my head then and found crystal blue eyes staring into mine. Blue eyes that didn’t belong in the face of a black boy. And in that instant I knew he’d been forced to keep secrets. Bad ones.
And he hadn’t died by accident.
I swallowed around the lump in my throat, ashamed at the stupidity of this whole night in comparison to what I knew he’d gone through in his short life and I began to cry again, this time for Jim. A small movement and a whispery touch grazed over my hand that still clutched the sleeping bag. He’d laid his hand on mine.
“Go on home, miss.”
I nodded and stood up. “Will you walk back with me?”
He nodded. “To the edge of the woods. I can’t go beyond.”
We walked in silence across the clearing and right before I got to the tree line, I turned around to thank him, but he was gone. Only a warm wind blew around me and I wondered if that was his way of saying goodbye. In the distance I could hear faint thumps and moans and not wanting to revisit those guys again, I spun back toward the woods.
Directly into a man.
My scream rivaled anything those spooks had to offer and when big hands grabbed my arms, my voice hit high notes my choir director would have envied.
“Kate, stop! It’s just me!”
My mouth snapped shut and I tipped my head back. Drew looked down at me. What was he doing here?
“Cotton called me,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “She told me what Ashley had done to you.” He pulled me into his arms and I sighed at the familiar embrace. “They kicked her out and sent her home.”
“Then they made you come rescue me?”
“Nah, that was my idea.”
I laid my head against Drew’s strong chest and thought about all that had happened since leaving my friends.
Jim’s words echoed in my mind. Secrets can be dangerous.
But tonight, a secret had given me a new friend and brought back an old one. And that was worth the dare.