The night was wretched. Rain clattered and wind howled. Gates banged and screeched as garbage cans blew down driveways and crashed into garage doors. Swollen black rivers rushed along gutters, roaring down through sewer grates.
Amid the clamor the crumbling old homes of the neighborhood creaked and moaned. Shingles streaming, they swam in the amber glow of the streetlights, their interiors dark and slumbering and otherwise lifeless.
Except for one house, that is. There someone lurked high above the sodden, winter-weary front lawn, peering out from beneath the paint-flecked gable and making little ovals of fog appear on the glass. An unknown watcher, waiting unseen.
But then came a zigzagging spear of lightning that despite its heavenly origins appeared hell-bent on striking the stubby little fire hydrant out front. With a deafening crack and a brilliant flash, the figure in the attic window was revealed.
It was a girl with sunny blond hair, her clear blue eyes now wide with fright.
For as long as she could remember, Joy Wells had lived at Number 9 Ravenwood Avenue. Like most properties in Spooking, a tired old neighborhood that had once been a bustling town, the home’s stately grandeur had long faded. With its scaly roof and Gothic exterior, it was a hulking dwelling, giving off a kind of menace usually accompanied by ominous organ music.
This appearance was at odds with its resident family, however. They were harmless people whose most sinister activity was keeping largely to themselves—an easy thing since few other houses on their block were currently occupied. Mr. Wells was a lawyer, while Mrs. Wells was a professor of philosophy; both worked down in Darlington, the sprawling modern city that circled yokelike around Spooking Hill.
At twelve years old, Joy was the older of their two children—and most certainly was expected to be in bed at midnight just like her brother, Byron. But Joy felt free to ignore such expectations, at least when they interfered with her investigations into the paranormal. With such activity occurring on her very doorstep of late, she found herself forsaking her warm bed for the frigid attic, where she now waited wrapped in a musty old sleeping bag.
Thanks to a careful log, Joy had determined that the unexplained event always manifested itself late Sunday night, usually sometime after midnight. First would come a distant rumbling, rousing her from her dreams. And then a series of terrifying blasts:
Ka-bang! Ka-bang! Ka-bang!
Her window still rattling, Joy would leap out of bed to peer bleary-eyed through the leafy elm to the street. But each time she was too late to glimpse more than a cloud of black smoke curling in the amber light of the streetlamps.
Clouds of black smoke. Earsplitting bangs. What horror could be responsible?
To answer the question, Joy had once again turned to The Compleat and Collected Works of E. A. Peugeot, a thick compendium written by one of the greatest authors of supernatural tales. Joy’s well-thumbed copy was a first edition, leather-bound and featuring a long red ribbon for marking the reader’s place. The book was one of her most prized possessions—not least because of the mysterious circumstances under which she had acquired it.
Her father had been handling the estate of Ms. Gertrude Zott, a longtime resident of Spooking who had passed away at over a hundred years old. In a tersely worded will, Ms. Zott had left specific instructions regarding the old volume, which was to be given to a spirited young Spooking girl with a taste for mystery, a thirst for adventure, and an eye for the inscrutable. Not knowing any likelier candidate, Mr. Wells had brought the book home and handed it to his daughter. His obligations satisfied, he’d then considered the matter closed.
With its tiny print and florid language, The Compleat and Collected Works of E. A. Peugeot had initially proved intimidating to the young reader. But soon the master author began casting a powerful spell over Joy. Night after night, she would hide under her covers, poring over the pages with a flashlight until the words swam under her bleary eyes.
And slowly Joy began to notice something: the eerie similarities between Peugeot’s gloomy settings and her own town of Spooking. She became convinced that the mysterious author, who had vanished without a trace a century earlier, had once haunted the very same streets, using their sights and sounds as the inspiration for his chilling tales. Not only that, she soon became certain that Peugeot’s stories were true accounts of strange and supernatural events he’d witnessed while living in Spooking.
The latter theory was a bit of a stretch, Joy had to admit. But somehow she knew it. She could hear the stories whispered by creaking mansions and repeated by the cold cemetery stones. She could even hear them roaring in the cruel winds that buffeted Spooking Hill as she read until gray dawn. The secret history of Ethan Alvin Peugeot was alive and well outside her very window.
Unfortunately, no one else entertained this belief for even a moment. Not her parents, not her teachers, and worst of all, not even the E. A. Peugeot Society, of which she was a proud and paying member. Although no one knew for certain where the shy author had in fact lived, everyone was in absolute agreement that it could not possibly have been Spooking.
They obviously needed a bit more convincing, Joy had decided.
It was with this mission in mind that Joy had once again slipped from her bedroom, ignoring her parents’ increasing concerns over the dark circles under her eyes. Having checked her latest suspicions against The Compleat and Collected Works, she’d decided that the higher vantage of the attic would be better for photographing whatever phantoms were approaching. Sticking an arm under her pillow, she’d retrieved her father’s camera—borrowed discreetly from his office earlier that evening—and then set off.
The attic had long been one of the more neglected spaces in the Wells family home, which was no small statement. Pigeons had roosted there for untold years, as Joy had discovered, and spiders had spun entire cities in its rafters. Nevertheless, its potential was immediately obvious.
With commanding views across the property, the drafty loft was a private space, accessed by means of a retractable flight of stairs set in the ceiling of the upstairs hallway. Once raised, the stairs could be lowered from below only by means of a special tool—a broom handle with a hook stuck on the end—which gave the attic the kind of security usually found only in castles with working drawbridges. By keeping the hook on her person, Joy could render the attic impregnable—at least until someone fetched the stepladder from the cellar. But even that didn’t seem very likely. It was the perfect retreat, a haven where she could slip away from her family without disapproval or suspicion.
Establishing this new base of operations had proved more challenging than Joy had originally anticipated, however. Though her father had denied the pigeons their penthouse by boarding up the broken window, their long-term tenancy had left the place in an unimaginably filthy state. After a few useless scrapes across their crusty droppings, she’d thrown down her mother’s favorite metal spatula in disgust. There had to be an easier way.
With no ideas forthcoming, Joy had sat down on the edge of an old trunk. What a chore this was turning out to be. Couldn’t some sort of poltergeist just take care of the job for her? She had read about such mischievous house ghosts in one of Peugeot’s many works. They were supposed to be sympathetic to children—even helping them out when not otherwise engaged in terrifying adults by throwing pots and pans around. Unfortunately, no kitchenware had ever taken flight in her house, as far as she knew.
It was then that her attention had been drawn to her seat. It was one of three trunks in the attic. With the exception of the corner on which Joy was perched, each was as spattered with bird droppings as the floor. There were many such heavy trunks stacked down in the cellar with the stepladder, each containing the cast-off belongings of the home’s former owners. Joy had spent many hours rifling through them in search of treasure. But her best finds were always in those trunks labeled with a single name: Ms. Melody Huxley.
From what Joy could piece together from crumpled old documents, Ms. Huxley had resided at Number 9 some eighty years before the Wells family had finally purchased the property. A glamorous adventure-woman, she was pictured in sepia photos wearing all manner of dapper outfits: grinningly flying planes and sailing sloops; giggling atop tall mountains; grimacing in thickest jungle; and jovially smoking pipes while waving swords and spears of all sizes. All these images were captured, it seemed, while she was on a merciless quest to blow away one of every species on the planet.
This rather disturbing hobby aside, Joy had instantly adored the long-dead woman, a rugged individualist who defied the world’s expectations of her with the same aplomb that young Miss Wells now disregarded her well-established bedtime. So besotted was Joy, in fact, that she immediately began helping herself to what remained of Ms. Huxley’s moldering wardrobe, despite her mother’s considerable horror and disgust.
Hoping to uncover another such cache of leather and tweeds, Joy had leaped up from her seat. She’d then searched the trunks for any telltale tags or MH monograms. But the poop-spackled cases gave away none of their secrets. Her face pinched in disgust, Joy had then moved on to prying open the sticky latches with the spatula; but instead of a stash of ancient garments reeking of mothballs, she had been surprised to find entirely more useful contents: a solution to her stalled remodeling project.
So it happened that in a matter of minutes the filthy attic floor had vanished under dozens of Persian rugs. And soon the cobwebs too had disappeared, hidden behind colorful bolts of silk hung from bent nails driven through the roof. Joy had then stood back to admire her handiwork. The attic, she saw, had been completely transformed—from a spider-infested aviary to the psychedelic den of a desert nomad.
It was in the same space that she now sat, watching shadows thrash and sheets of rain flap ghostlike across the lawn as the lightning struck. Pulling the musty old sleeping bag around her, Joy lay there, her heart thudding as the thunder rolled off into the distance. With spots still swirling in her sight, her eyes suddenly went wide. Her parents! So far they had been blissfully unaware of their daughter’s school-night mission, but there was no way anyone could have slept through a noise like that.
With visions of her panicked parents rushing to reassure their frightened children, Joy snatched up her flashlight and began tiptoeing back to the retractable stairs. By laying gentle pressure on them, it was possible to lower them just enough to see down the length of the hall. The maneuver was tricky, however: an inch too far and the momentum would carry the stairs down with a crash.
Joy gently pushed on the stairs and peeked out into the impenetrable blackness. The hallway seemed clear.
Then suddenly there appeared a shaft of light.
It was her father coming out of the bathroom. With his heavy lids and outstretched arms, he looked as if he were acting out some mad scientist’s monster in a game of charades.
Panicking, Joy went to pull the stairs shut, but she slipped and fell forward, plunging from the ceiling toward him. At the same moment, her father’s hand brushed against the light switch, throwing the hall back into darkness just before the stairs hit the floor with a bang.
For a moment there was dead silence.
“Is anyone there?” Mr. Wells called down the black hall.
As she lay facedown on the stairs, the blood drained from Joy’s legs into her head until it felt like her face might burst. She held her breath. A few feet away, the floorboards creaked as a pair of slipper-clad feet approached.
It was at that moment that Joy heard the familiar rumble. It was coming! Clenching her teeth, she felt as if she were in a straitjacket, maddeningly powerless to move.
Crying out in surprise, Mr. Wells leaped into the air.
In a panic, her father tore back toward his bedroom, his pajama sleeves flapping.
Now was Joy’s chance. Throwing her legs over her head, she momentarily went into a handstand before landing nimbly on her feet. She then scrambled back up into the attic, bolting to the little round window overlooking the stormy avenue.
Black smoke curled in the amber light.
It was the ghost cannons! Joy was convinced. She’d missed them again!
© 2010 P. J. Bracegirdle