SKULL HOUSE - by Ray O'Bannon

Chip pedaled his old green bike slowly up Sawyer's hill, the chain rattling like teeth in a bucket. Scooter came coasting up quietly behind him, the new ten-speed whispering silently through the late summer evening. Scooter could have blown right by him with that spiffy new bike, but ol' Scoot was a considerate sort of kid, and kept pace without complaint as Chip struggled up the hill. They'd been pals for a large portion of their young lives, and it would take more than an advanced shifting mechanism to drive them very far apart. They topped the rise and gazed anxiously across the moonlit countryside. Chip's glow-in-the-dark wristwatch showed 11:42. Almost midnight, but there should be enough time. He let the bike pick up speed as it coasted down the hill towards their destination. He wouldn't have admitted it, but he was glad to have Scooter along this evening, glad they were riding together. After all, neither of them would have wanted to reach their destination alone. Because tonight they were riding out to Skull House.

They'd heard the local legends for years. The old farmhouse was supposedly haunted, and it was said that if you stood in the attic window at midnight you'd see human skulls floating through the air. None of the local kids were allowed to go anywhere near the tottering old ruin, but there comes a time in every young boys life when the call of adventure over-rides even the most dire warnings from his parents. And Scooter's big sister Connie had sworn she had actually seen a floating skull when she and Andy Hollings had decided to sneak out there last weekend. She might have just been trying to scare them, or to see if they would have the nerve to go check the place out for themselves. But rather than risk being taunted by the girls in school next year, they had decided to dedicate this calm summer evening to the pursuit of ghostly skulls. They would bravely stand in the attic window, they would behold the legendary floating skulls, and with any luck they might even grab one to take home as a souvenir. And of course if nothing supernatural took place they could always have fun making up some horrifying tale to freak out Connie and her friends when they got back. Either way, this was gonna be the most fun they'd had all summer. All they had to do was get there by midnight. The two boys turned off the pavement and rode between the two huge ash trees that leaned like rotting sentinels across the cracked and broken driveway, and then Skull House was suddenly in view. Whatever comment Chip was preparing to make was lost in the sudden ratchety snarl of his bike chain locking up. It had gotten caught between the gear and chain guard again, as it did from time to time. Chip stomped the pedals in aggravation and the chain grudgingly clanked loose. He looked up at the deserted farmhouse at the end of the drive, and felt the hairs on the back of his neck tingle.

The house sat crouching in the overgrowth like a bloated ugly spider, black empty windows bleakly staring as they drew nearer. The air seemed to grow several degrees cooler, and a quick glance told Chip that Scooter was suddenly feeling less than eager about this whole idea. Chip also felt uneasy, but it was too late for turning back. And when it came right down to it, both boys were enjoying this mild terror. After all, it was better than sitting home watching TV, and they were both old enough to know there probably weren't really any ghosts in there...not really. But as Chip and Scooter glided quietly down the driveway towards Skull House, they grew increasingly agitated. Something felt odd here, as though some horrible calamity was just on the brink of occurring. The apprehension they felt had no apparent cause, but they both felt oddly jumpy as they reached the weed-choked field that had once been a front yard, and gazed up at the dark silent building.

Skull House had been slowly decaying for decades, and now had the look of a broken rotted tooth. The Victorian architecture gave it a stern unforgiving aspect, and the house seemed to somehow shun the moonlight as it towered darkly over the two boys. What little light penetrated the dead gnarled tree branches revealed broken shutters, a collapsing porch roof, and various gaps and holes in the weathered wooden siding of the house. Broken glass gleamed here and there in the empty window frames, and broken boards littered the front walk, rusty nails stabbing upward as though anxious to impale. Chip lay his bike down gently in the tall weeds, not bothering with the kickstand that, no matter how hard he tried to tighten it, never remained snug enough to actually function. He started to say something to Scooter about how bike companies never made usable kickstands, but Scooter was staring at the attic window with a look that made Chip's blood run cold.

"You see that?" Scooter asked, the slight quiver in his voice showing his own uncertainty about what he'd just noticed.

"See what?" asked Chip as he scanned the grim forbidding front of the house. And then he saw it, too. Or at least thought he did. There in the attic window that seemed to stare so bitterly back down at them as they gazed upward. The faintest trace of light, flickering softly, perhaps a candle?

"Ah, this is ridiculous" murmured Scooter quietly, just loud enough for Chip to hear. But the very fact that he spoke so quietly told Chip that Scooter was genuinely alarmed.
"We still goin' in?" asked Chip, not sure what response he was really hoping to receive. The situation had suddenly grown more serious with the appearance of the faint flickering light. Could be other kids up there, older kids who might give them trouble. Could be vagrants or even someone on the run from the cops or something. Could even, Chip wasn't willing to let himself complete the thought. He was too old to seriously believe in ghosts. The light had to have a commonplace explanation of some sort. But as he stood gazing up at it, that flickering glimmer drew him like a beacon, and he was sure Scooter felt the same way. This was the adventure they had been craving, and no matter how foolish it might be, Chip knew they were going in there. Chip understood on a very basic level that turning away without discovering the source of that light, riding away and leaving the mystery unsolved, would somehow diminish both of them, would forever haunt them. No, this situation needed to be faced bravely. There was actually a light in the attic window of Skull House. And they were going to have to see what it was.

"C'mon" Scooter mumbled, removing the flashlight from his backpack. It was one of those cheap Halloween flashlights, with little orange pumpkins stamped all over it, and Scooter had long considered it a sort of 'lucky charm' at night. They stepped carefully up the broken cement walkway and surveyed the front porch nervously. The front door was missing and the entrance yawned wide like the gaping maw of some unimaginable beast, waiting to devour whatever might be thrown it's way by the twisted groping branches above. Chip knew this was a silly notion, that it was just an old house made of wood and stone. But as the rotting front steps creaked beneath his feet, and as he stepped cautiously across the dry splintered planks of the front porch toward that impossibly dark doorway, the little voice in the back of his head began softly mumbling something about this whole thing being a very very bad idea. Scooter aimed his flashlight towards the darkened interior, but Chip stopped him before he could switch the light on.

"Huh uh, lets stay out of sight till we know what we're dealing with here."
Scooter nodded quietly and left the light off, although he still held it out protectively in front of him. Chip was reminded of those intrepid vampire hunters he'd seen in his favorite films and comic books, brandishing their little wooden crosses in front of them as they courageously stalked the living dead. Scooter was a comical parody of those steadfast heroes as he stood nervously holding the unlit Halloween flashlight, his eyes scanning the inky blackness inside the house with obvious uncertainly. But still he advanced to the doorframe and placed a hand against it, leaning cautiously into the darkness. His upper body disappeared into the shadows, and Chip had the momentary impression of Scooter's head being bitten off, devoured by the gaping mouth that was the doorway. Then Scooter leaned back out, his expression grim.
"I think there's enough moonlight to make it up the stairs. Might be some missing floorboards and steps. Can't tell." He looked questioningly at Chip.
"Let's give it a try." Chip stepped towards the doorway.
And then they heard the voice, faint but clearly discernable in the quiet summer evening. "Come to us."

They stared upwards in alarm. The voice had drifted softly down from somewhere above them, somewhere in the house. A soft female voice, calmly beckoning. Glancing at each other to be sure both had heard it, they paused in the doorway, wondering how to react. And again they heard it, a solemn command spoken with patient determination. "Come to us."

This was just too much. If any of the local kids had claimed to have heard voices in Skull House, Chip and Scooter would have both laughed at such an absurd notion. What next? Vampires? But when you actually stood here in the moonlight, a little before Midnight, on the front porch of Skull House, you could almost imagine even that.
"We gotta be crazy" mumbled Scooter.
"No doubt about it" responded Chip with a grin.
And the two boys stepped cautiously into the darkness.

Pale moonlight drifted weakly down through the broken windows and fell across the bare wooden floor of the living room. A few scattered weeds were growing up through missing planks in the floor, and Chip thought he heard a soft scurrying sound that might be rats. Not a scrap of furniture remained, and the idea of anyone having ever actually lived here was hard to comprehend. In spite of the rumors of older kids having parties out here, there was no apparent graffiti or vandalism, and no empty beer cans or litter of any sort. The only apparent damage to the house had been done by time. Although time had seemingly gone at it with a vengeance. They crossed to the foot of the rickety staircase and began their slow ascent. The railing wobbled precariously as Chip grasped it for balance, and the steps creaked beneath his slight weight as though they might crumble at any moment, sending him flailing into the dark chasm under the stairs. The plaster walls crumbled slightly under his palms whenever he leaned against them. Scooter joined him at the top of the stairs and the two boys stood facing the decaying second floor hallway. Shafts of moonlight revealed greater damage here than below. Rain had rotted much of the woodwork, and faded wallpaper hung in tatters from the cracked plaster walls. Again the boys heard the insistent voice from above them, growing slowly louder, and now several other voices joining in, chanting in unison...
"Come to us, come to us, join us."

Scooter was moving forward with grim determination. Chip stepped quietly after him, leaning away from the dead brittle tree branches that reached in through the broken windows. The branches stretched longingly across the ceiling, as though wishing to tear into the very heart of the house and rip it to pieces. It was as though nature itself had decided this foul edifice was too unwholesome to remain standing, and was attempting to pull it all down. At the end of the hall they saw a small staircase leading to the attic door.

"Come to us, come to us" continued the chanting.

Soft yellow light leaked out around the edges of the warped wooden attic door, and through the many cracks in its surface. Scooter stepped stealthily up the last few stairs and peered through one of the larger cracks in the door. Then he turned and motioned for Chip to join him, the flickering candlelight momentarily illuminating his surprised expression. Chip reached the door and gazed silently through the crack. What he beheld took him completely by surprise.

Chip didn't recognize any of the five teenagers huddled around the dim flickering candle, but assumed they must have driven here from a nearby town. Skull House was, after all, a magnet for amateur ghost hunters. The two girls and one of the boys sat chanting softly over a Quija board placed in the center of the floor. The other two boys were concentrating on what looked like a tape recorder and a video camera. Chip glanced over at Scooter and could tell they were both thinking the same thing. This was great! This was gonna be hilarious! They'd scare these older kids to pieces, and then hopefully escape without getting pounded. It would be an adventure to laugh about for years to come. Scooter's thumb slid over the flashlight's switch as he prepared to shine the light suddenly on the unsuspecting group of teens, and Chip held up his glow-in-the-dark watch so they both could see it. 11:58. The second hand swept stealthily across the glowing digits. 11:59. Chip and Scooter leaned anxiously against the door.

"Spirits of those departed, phantoms of those who are gone..."
"Visit us now in this hour, speak with us now from beyond..."
"Come to us, come to us...join us."
"Aw man, this is crap!" The teen with the tape recorder shook his head in disgust. "Nothings happening and nothings gonna. We're wasting our
WHAM! The attic door slammed open, Scooter and Chip waving their arms frantically and bellowing like banshees. The five older kids screamed in terror, jumping to their feet and stumbling backwards toward the open window behind them. And then Scooter was laughing hysterically and Chip was thinking it was time to get out of there before the bigger kids came to their senses. Except the older kids weren't calming down at all. They were still just standing there screaming and pointing. And Chip began to realize they weren't pointing at him and Scooter, but rather at something behind him.

Chip's mind didn't immediately recognize what he saw as he spun around. Scooter's flashlight had suddenly gone out and only weak moonlight filtered in from the attic window. But there seemed to be two dull white balls of some sort, floating in the dark open doorway behind him. And then the balls were floating forward and Chip could see they weren't balls at all. They were two dry white skulls, dead empty eye sockets staring, teeth set in horrible humorless grins. One skull seemed to have been shattered on the left side, jagged shards of bone thrusting hideously from the cheek and brow. And he now saw the skulls weren't merely floating, they were being held by something darker than the surrounding blackness, something with a vaguely human shape that was drifting out into the brighter moonlight in the center of the room. Chip and Scooter stumbled backwards between the other kids, who in their terror seemed to take no notice of them. And suddenly Chip was slipping on the slick plastic Quija board, and Scooter was grabbing at him to keep him from falling, and now both boys were tumbling headlong out the open attic window.

They fell heavily onto the sagging porch roof, which threatened to collapse beneath their sudden weight. And then they were slipping off the edge and dropping to the weed-choked front yard. Chip rose unsteadily and looked over to where Scooter had fallen. There wasn't any movement at first, but then Scooter came crashing through the chest-high weeds and now both boys were racing towards the bikes they had left at the front of the house. Chip felt a moment of blind panic as he frantically scanned the field of weeds, unable to locate his bike. Then he saw moonlight glimmering off one of the handlebars and within seconds had the bike upright and rolling towards the driveway. He hopped atop it as the tires hit the cracked and broken pavement, glancing back to be sure Scooter was still with him. The other boy was following, but was moving far too slowly as he fumbled with the shifter, trying to get the ten-speed into a low enough gear. Then the chain fell into place and the bike shot forward, passing Chip in a silvery blur of moonlight as Scooter screamed "Come on!" From somewhere behind the house Chip could hear a car engine screaming to life, and he thought he could hear the older kids screaming as well. He looked forward to see Scooter reaching the end of the driveway. Moonlight now fell brightly on the house and front steps, but the dead gnarled trees at the end of the driveway blocked the light there, leaving an inky pool of blackness where the driveway met the road. And it seemed Scooter had fallen off his bike as he slipped into that impenetrable darkness.

Chip pedaled with all his might, racing without thought towards that horrible patch of darkness ahead of him. And then the outline of Scooter became clear, rising from the pavement. Scooter was gasping for breath but seemed otherwise unharmed as Chip drew near.
"Damn tire popped! Can you believe that?" Scooter stammered between ragged breaths.
Chip could dimly make out the shape of the ten-speed lying in the bushes beside the pavement.
"Get on!" Chip shouted urgently, motioning to the banana seat on his own bike. "We gotta get outta here."
"OK, hang on" Scooter mumbled, turning back towards his wrecked bike and reaching for the backpack that lay beside it in the weeds. "Lemme grab my...
The car came out of nowhere, fishtailing around the side of the house and hitting the pavement at full speed. It flew down the driveway and plunged into the dark patch, tires suddenly screeching as the driver desperately tried to swerve. But the car was moving much too fast.

Chip saw the front of the car slamming into Scooter, and then Scooter was tumbling over the vehicle and into the darkness, and there was something wrong with the left side of his head. And now the kids in the car were smashing through the front windshield and spilling out onto the pavement but the car was still hurtling forward. And Chip was turning and standing on the bike's pedals but the chain was stuck again and it wouldn't budge and then

Chip pedaled his old green bike slowly up Sawyer's Hill, the chain rattling like teeth in a bucket, as Scooter came coasting up quietly behind him. They topped the rise and gazed anxiously across the moonlit countryside. Almost midnight, but there should be enough time. The two boys sped silently on through the endless late summer evening, each glad for the other's company. Because tonight held the promise of a special adventure. Tonight they were riding out to Skull House.