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"What do you think could have caused this?"
"I don't know. I've seen cases where people were so scared they turned pale; but I've never seen anything like this."
"It's like every drop of blood has drained from his face. He's truly white."
"Look at his face. His mouth ... his eyes ... it's like he's seen ..."
"No. Worse ..."
The three boys approached the house carefully. It stood tall and wide, the upper windows gazing out like eyes, the long porch gaped like a giant mouth with crossed lattices for teeth. It seemed to almost speak to the boys: Leave here. An intermittent breeze would tinkle the rusted chimes that hung from the porch by the door—it brought a chill to the boys' spines, but they continued their approach.
Joseph Blair was the oldest. He had just turned twelve a few weeks ago, and he wanted to be the leader of this little group. His thin freckled face gave him the look of a gentler type like Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, so he tended to grit his teeth frequently to show how "tough" he was. Right now, he didn't feel so tough; he didn't want to admit it, but the big abandoned house scared him. He would have rather been anywhere else. But his older brother Steve had dared him on numerous occasions to go there and he had quietly declined. Steve razzed him about this, so now he was here showing his two lessers how tough he was. He thought he might throw up.
Carl Feegel was eleven. His thick black hair curled around his head on either side like fresh blacktop tar. It was said many girls at school were jealous of his hair and that they would kill to have hair as curly and wavy as his without the gels and curling irons. This left him the subject of much teasing, so when Joe suggested he accompany him to the old house, Carl jumped at the chance to show how tough he was. Now, like Joe, Carl wished he could be anywhere else. The old house scared him just as much as it did Joe. It seemed to him to sense his fear. Its upper-floor windows, with the shades drawn down halfway looking like eyes, looked to Joe as if they squinted in anger, mocking him. The house dared him to come closer.
Stephen Burns was the youngest of the group. He was nine years old going on ten, and he was the reason the three of them were here. Compared to the fair Joseph, Stephen's features were darker, though he did have freckles as well. When fascinated, his hazel eyes sparkled like a cat's and his cheeks would redden. This had been the case as he heard Joe, Carl, and many others speak of the old Baxter house, about the stories of the sinister things that went on there—witchcraft, séances, devil worship. He didn't know if any of it was true, but Joe and Carl seemed to believe it, and Stephen was intrigued. And, truth be told, he wanted Joseph's acceptance as well, though he wouldn't admit it. That was why he was willing to come to the Baxter house in the first place.
Earlier that day, Stephen had come over to Carl's house; as he quietly ascended the stairs, he overheard Joe and Carl talking and he was struck at how tense they sounded. They were scared! A floorboard creaked as Stephen shifted so he could be more comfortable as he eavesdropped, and the two boys caught him. Joe angrily yanked him into the room and Carl slammed the bedroom door shut.
"Stop slamming the damn door!" Carl's mom bellowed angrily from downstairs.
"Sorry, mom!" Carl yelled back.
Joe demanded, "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Ooooh! You said hell," Stephen giggled, wide-eyed.
"Never mind that! How did you get in here?" Joseph gritted his teeth in a tough-guy fashion, which made Stephen stifle another giggle.
"Carl's mom let me in. I wanted to see what you guys were doing."
"We weren't doing nothing, dipstick. Just talkin'."
"Yeah, I heard. You were talking about the Baxter house, and boy, did you sound scared."
"Shut up!" Joseph hissed, teeth still gritted. "What do you know about anything? Why are you even here?"
"I told ya. I wanted to see what you were doing."
"No, I mean why do you think it's okay to hang out with us? We're older, bigger, and smarter than you."
Stephen snickered. "Yeah, and more scared too." His face reddened as he put his hand over his mouth to stifle a loud laugh.
Carl said, "Oh, so you think you're so tough, huh? What do you know about anything? You wouldn't go anywhere near the Baxter house, even during the day."
"I could if I wanted to. It ain't so scary. Just a big old stupid house."
"Prove it!" Joe spat. "You think you're so tough, why don't you go in there—at night!"
Stephen thought for a moment. They were daring him. His stomach churned a little. A tingle shot through his body, making his blond hair feel like it was standing on end. But then he thought about it. These two had just been talking scared about that house. So many kids had talked about the things that supposedly went on in there, but in his few years, he had never seen any kind of proof. Now they were daring him to go in, and he thought he might just take that dare.
"I could if I wanted to," he said, a little too jittery. He took a deep breath and straightened up. "Maybe I will. But you guys have to go with me."
"Oh, so you're too scared to go in alone?" Joe chided.
"Oh, so you're too scared to go with me?" Stephen shot back, mimicking Joe.
Joe stiffened. His stomach tightened, and he could feel a cool sweat starting, but he wasn't going to let this little wimp get the best of him.
"I ain't too scared to do anything, wimp! We'll go; besides, you'll need witnesses when your scared little ass goes running home to Mommy before you even hit the first porch step. Right, Carl?"
Carl thought, we? He wouldn't let the word escape from his mouth; he gulped it down like a swig of soda and nodded at them.
"It's settled then. We go tonight, soon as it gets dark," Joe said commandingly while his stomach did some "marching" of its own. "We'll see how brave you are." Joe flashed a conniving smile at Carl, who responded with a confused look. But then he brightened; Joe had a plan and Carl was going to help him. If it worked, he and Joe would become better friends. He wanted Joe's acceptance, so he smiled back. They both looked at Stephen, smiling and nodding.
Now they were there, standing before the big, decrepit structure. The moon was full that night, so it wasn't as dark as it could have been, but they were leery just the same. As they approached the house, Joe steeled himself and turned to Stephen, giving him his tough look, hands on his hips.
"Okay, tough guy, go on in."
Stephen swallowed hard. He did not want Joe to know how scared he truly felt. He was actually tempted to insist the two of them accompany him to the porch, but he decided he needed to prove how tough he was. He nodded and slowly started his approach. A sudden breeze caused a big tree branch to brush against the left upper-floor window, startling the three of them. Stephen looked up. Did he see someone look at him and then quickly vanish? He stared for another moment, contemplating, when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He jumped with a loud yelp and spun around to see Joe, teeth gritted, impatiently waving him toward the house.
Stephen walked slowly toward the big porch, looking back occasionally to see if the other two were still there. He was sure they would run as soon as he was far enough away from them, but each time he looked back, they were still there. He figured they were waiting for him to suddenly run away in fear, so he was more determined than ever to call their bluff. He reached the porch and decided he would not walk up slowly; he would pick up his pace, march right through the front door, poke his head out one of the front windows to show he was inside, and then come right back out. But Joe had other plans.
"Hey, punk! Y'know you can't just walk inside the door and come right back out."
It's like he's reading my mind, Stephen thought.
"You have to go upstairs all the way to the left window and then you can come back out."
"Well, then you have to come with me ... y'know, to show me you're not scared," Stephen replied, trying to keep his voice steady.
"Oh, we will," Joe insisted, "but you have to go up, first. Y'see, we've ... uh ... already been up there before, so we'll join you when we see you up there."
Stephen blanched. "Wait a minute. When were you ever up there?"
Joe replied, trying not to stutter. "Uh ... a couple weeks ago. We ... uh ... didn't tell you 'cause ... um ... we wanted you to just go up there yourself."
Stephen sensed the hesitancy in Joe's voice. He was lying. Stephen was ready to turn around and walk off indignantly, berating them for daring him to do what they wouldn't do, but in a moment of sudden boldness, he decided to keep going and really call their bluff. He turned with conviction and marched right up to the door. After looking back one more time, he grasped the knob and turned it. He was surprised to find the door unlocked, and for a moment, he hesitated. Then he pushed the door open and stepped inside.
"See you upstairs," he said. He left the door open and disappeared into the house.
As soon as Stephen was inside, the two others came alive. Joe pulled out the mask he was hiding in his back pocket and handed it to Carl. It was a black hood with a skull on the front; when you pressed a hidden button, the skull bled inside the transparent cover. They walked around to the back of the house where there was an old set of steps that led up to a back door. Carl would sneak in there, beat Stephen to the far room, and pop out wearing the mask and screaming. They knew Stephen scared more easily than he admitted, so this would be perfect. Carl began to ascend the steps.
"I'll be waiting out front. As soon as you scare him, run back down the back stairs and meet me here. We'll pretend we were here the whole time and really have some fun." Carl gave Joe an uneasy thumbs-up and continued up the stairs.
Inside, Stephen tiptoed carefully into the big living room and looked around. He knew he was supposed to go upstairs to the window on the far left, but he hesitated. He thought he had heard a noise upstairs that sounded like footsteps, just for a moment—but mostly he was put off by a strange odor. He wasn't sure what it was, and though it wasn't that strong, it still made his stomach rumble. As he crept to the first window, he could see Joe standing there. He couldn't see Carl, but there was a big overgrown bush growing just outside so it was possible Carl was blocked from his view.
He turned around carefully and looked at the stairs. They were just across from the front door and they led, as far as he knew, to the second-floor hallway. He figured he would just run up the stairs as quickly as possible, find the far room, run to the window, and yell, and then run back downstairs, through the door and outside, where he would gloat and dare them to do what he did. He placed his foot carefully onto the first step, testing to make sure it could hold his weight. It creaked loudly as he put his full weight on it, but it held, so he began slowly ascending the steps.
Suddenly he froze. He heard creaking sounds, only they weren't coming from him. As he stopped to listen, he noticed the odor again. It was stronger now, and his stomach began to rumble more strongly. He thought there might be a dead animal, maybe a squirrel up there somewhere, but just as he considered this, the odor abated and he heard no more creaking. He looked around carefully, especially behind him, and then slowly continued up the stairs.
Carl had reached the top of the back steps and tried the door. He thought he would have to somehow force it open, but he was surprised to see that it was already slightly ajar. He reached his hand out and carefully pushed it open. He stepped inside and stopped, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. He looked around the room carefully and spotted another door, which was also ajar. He reached down to his pocket to make sure the mask was there and ready.
It was then that he noticed the odor. It kind of smelled to him like a dead animal, only different, more disgusting, like a combination of puke and pee. He suddenly stopped and grabbed his stomach. After taking a moment to calm down, he carefully walk toward the door but stopped again. He heard the sound of floorboards creaking—was the little geek already upstairs? He listened carefully, and hearing nothing else, he began tiptoeing toward the door. Suddenly he slipped on some kind of wet patch. He almost lost his footing, but he was able to grab hold of the doorknob to steady himself. Must be a leak somewhere, he thought. That's what made the floor wet. He carefully pulled the door open and stepped into the hallway.
He could hear the creak of floorboards coming from the direction of the front stairs, and he sighed with relief. Stephen hadn't reached there yet. He tiptoed to the opposite room and quietly stepped inside, stopping to listen for any more creaking, but he heard nothing. He shrugged and pulled out the skull mask, checked to make sure it was facing the right way, and then slipped it on. He hoped Stephen would get there quickly, because that odor hit him again like a furnace blast and he wanted to get out of there fast.
He heard footsteps—Stephen had made it up the stairs and was walking slowly toward the room. Carl grinned under the mask, and he had to stifle a giggle as he carefully ducked behind the door. He noticed that the street lamp just outside the window cast a stream of light right to the door, so he could clearly see Stephen when he entered. As he stooped down, ready to pounce, he didn't notice the closet door behind him slowly open with a metallic squeal. He was preoccupied with Stephen, who was preparing to enter the room. He also didn't notice the figure that approached him from behind.
Joe was getting antsy, pacing and slapping his hands together as he waited for the inevitable scream. He thought about the time he had made Stephen scream before in school. Two friends had distracted him while Joe sneaked around behind him and jumped out yelling. Stephen had screamed so loudly that Joe's ears rang. He had dropped the books he was carrying and tried to run but stumbled. Joe and his friends laughed and made fun of his scream, a high-pitched, girlie-sounding noise. Now Joe was anxious to hear it again.
The scream! Joe's face broke into a huge smile. This was just too awesome, he thought. He couldn't wait to hear the pounding footsteps of Stephen racing down the stairs and bursting out the front door. Carl would race down the back steps, hopefully reaching Joe just before Stephen did so they could both laugh. Joe grinned in anticipation, but then it faded. The screaming continued, and it was like nothing he had heard before—a high-pitched, terror-filled sound. And it didn't sound like Stephen's. It was deeper, fuller, as if someone had received the scare of his life. It sounded like ...
"Carl!" Joe whirled around, ready to curse Carl for startling him, but his face went white and he felt chills. It was not Carl.
"I heard Carl scream," Stephen shrieked, more frightened than Joe had ever seen him or anyone else. "I saw blood, I smelled something, I ran. I couldn't find the stairs; I jumped out a back window into a tree, I—" Stephen was hysterical. Joe grabbed and shook him.
"Where's Carl?" he demanded. "Where is he?"
Stephen gurgled, unable to speak. He pointed to the house. Drool rolled down the side of his mouth as he tried to speak, so he just pointed. Joe looked toward the house and swallowed hard. He had never in his life heard a scream like that before—at least not from a human being. His father had taken his brother and him camping two years ago, and he had been startled by a high-pitched scream, as if a woman was being murdered. His father told him it was a wildcat, probably tensing up for a fight with some other animal. Joe had never wanted to hear a sound like that again, and now he thought he might have heard that terrifying scream coming from Carl, who was somewhere inside the house.
Excerpted from The Face by Mark Andrews Copyright © 2010 by Mark Andrews. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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