The tall, black-clad man stepped slowly toward the sleeping woman who was stretched out on the couch. Behind him, pale light from a mist-shrouded moon trickled in through a broken window. In the distance, the mournful wail of a wolf split the deathly still night. The man strode one step closer, brushing past a spiderweb, sending the eight-legged creature scurrying up its silvery strands. Reaching the couch, the man parted his brilliant red lips, revealing two long, sharp, gleaming white fangs.
“And now, my dear,” the man said softly, leaning down toward the woman’s exposed throat, “you will be mine—forever!”
As the man’s fangs closed in on her neck, the woman suddenly awoke. Her eyes shot open in horror as she stared up at the beastlike jaws moving quickly toward her.
“AAAIIIEEEEEE!” she screamed, but her cry went unanswered.
“Emily? Is that you? Is everything all right? I heard a scream,” said a voice drifting down the basement stairs. Downstairs, in her family’s home theater, Emily Hunter hit the pause button on the DVD’s remote.
“Yeah, Mom, I’m fine,” Emily replied, shaking her head. Why does she always interrupt me just at the good part? she wondered, staring at the horrific image frozen on the big screen in front of her.
“Well, I’m home, honey,” Emily’s mom called down. “You watching a scary movie again?”
“Yeah, Mom. I like scary movies, remember?” Emily shouted up the stairs.
“Okay, dinner will be ready in about half an hour,” her mom replied. “Dad will be home any minute.”
Emily glanced at the clock. It read 8:10. She shook her head.
“I bet I’m the only kid in the entire country who eats dinner at eight thirty,” Emily mumbled to herself. Then she shrugged and hit play.
Up on the screen, the man had the woman locked in his supernatural gaze. She was spellbound by his stare, unable to move, trapped by his dark, penetrating eyes. He bit down hard, sinking his teeth deeply into her neck. She went limp in his arms, not dead, but no longer truly alive. The vampire’s victim had been ushered into the world of the undead.
“Cool!” Emily said. Then she hit rewind and watched the scene again.
“Hey, Em, I’m home!” came her dad’s voice from the top of the stairs.
“Hi, Dad,” Emily shouted up to him, pausing the movie again.
“How was your day?” her dad asked.
“Great,” her dad said. “I’ll see you in a few for dinner.”
As she went back to the movie, Emily thought about the long hours that both her parents worked. Her mom was a lawyer. Her dad, a vice president of a pharmaceutical company. Emily knew that without all their hard work she would not be sitting in a state-of-the-art home theater watching one of her favorite horror movies. And if letting herself in after school, spending a few hours alone, and eating dinner at eight thirty instead of six like the rest of the world was the price, well, she figured she didn’t have it all that bad.
As the undead man and woman on the screen stepped from the old gothic mansion in search of fresh victims, the credits rolled, and Emily’s mom called her for dinner.
“On my way, Mom!” she shouted, flipping off the TV and bounding up the stairs.
“So what did you do at school today?” her dad asked as he passed Emily a bowl of mashed potatoes.
“Nothing too exciting,” Emily replied, scooping potatoes onto her plate next to a mound of string beans. “I had to climb the rope in gym. You know how much I love that. But chem lab was fun. Ethan and Hannah were lab partners. And Ethan put too much red powder in with the blue powder, and white smoke and bubbles started pouring out of the beaker, all over the lab table and the floor. It was so funny!”
“I always said Ethan was a born scientist,” her father teased. “Hey! How about we play some Wii after dinner?”
“Can’t,” Emily replied through a mouthful of string beans. “Going across the street to hang out at Drew and Vicky’s.”
“So late?” her mom asked. “We’re getting up early tomorrow to drive to the beach.”
“It’s Friday night, Mom. And besides, I’ll be home by my nine thirty curfew and I’ll go straight to bed,” Emily said. “I promise.”
“It seems like you’re always going over there,” her mom said, shaking her head. “Are you embarrassed by your own house?”
“Of course not. Drew and Vicky just feel more comfortable at their own house, I guess.”
“I don’t know how anyone could feel comfortable in that house,” her mom said. “It’s a wreck.”
“That house has been a wreck for all the years we’ve lived here,” Emily pointed out. “That’s not their fault.”
“Yes, but it was empty for a long time,” her mom said. “When I heard that someone had bought it and was moving in, I was thrilled. I figured they’d fix it up. But the Strigs have been there for a few months now, and they haven’t done a thing. The siding is still ripped up. The old shutters hang from the windows. The porch is about to collapse, and the next big storm we get will probably take that roof down. The lawn is brown and dead. They haven’t planted a single flower. It’s just a disgrace to this neighborhood. Your father and I and the rest of the people on this street work hard to have a nice place to live, and a nice community.”
Emily looked away for a second, then she turned back to her mother. “I just think you don’t like Drew and Vicky,” she said. “But you only met them once for, like, two minutes. You don’t even know them.”
“Oh, honey, it’s not true that I don’t like Drew and Vicky,” Mrs. Hunter explained. “But it is true that I’ve never even seen, much less met, their parents. Normally I’d insist on meeting them before you hung out at their house, but I guess it’s okay since you’re only right across the street.”
“You know that there aren’t any other kids in the neighborhood, Mom,” Emily said. “Everyone’s old, even older than you and Dad, and now I finally have some kids my own age around here. They’re a lot of fun to hang out with and I just want to be friends with them. So what if I go over to their house all the time?”
Emily’s mom sighed. “All right, go have fun,” she said, knowing how much Emily missed having other kids around. Then she scowled slightly. “But I still wish their parents would fix up that house.”
“I’ll tell them that, Mom,” Emily joked, getting up from the table and bringing her plate into the kitchen. Then she kissed her mom and hurried across the dining room. “Bye. See ya later.”
Emily bolted out the front door before her mom could say anything more. She glanced up and down the block. House after house looked pretty much the same. The soft glow of streetlights and porch lights revealed muted-color siding, sliding glass doors leading onto decks, nicely mowed lawns, landscaped gardens, and blacktop driveways.
And then there was the Strig house.
Looking across the street, Emily saw the ramshackle old place. The last few flakes of paint on the original wooden clapboard danced in the wind. The sun-bleached shutters dangled on rusty nails. Most of the windows were broken, and those that weren’t were boarded up. Green moss spread across the roof. The front lawn had died long ago, and even the weeds seemed to be struggling to survive.
Emily realized that her mom was right. The place looked as if no one had lived there for years. But she knew better. She knew that a family with two kids was living there. And they liked her. They wanted to hang out with her, and she liked hanging out with them. They had a lot of cool stuff in their house. And that was good enough for Emily.
She walked across the crunchy brown lawn and stepped up onto the porch. Ancient floorboards creaked as she approached the front door. Emily was about to knock when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She jumped at the touch, spun around, and found herself face-to-face with Drew Strig.
Drew was taller than Emily, and very thin. His face was pale. His jet-black hair sprang out in every direction and looked as if it hadn’t had even a chance meeting with a hairbrush in years. His black T-shirt and jeans looked slightly too small for his body.
“You scared me!” Emily exclaimed, and started to laugh. “I didn’t hear you step onto the porch.”
“Sorry about that,” Drew said. “I wasn’t sure you were going to make it over tonight.”
“Yeah, my mom gave me a hard time,” Emily explained. “You know, the usual. ‘It’s so late. Why are you always going over there?’”
“Maybe she doesn’t like us,” said a voice from above.
Looking up, Emily spotted Drew’s sister, Vicky, sitting on a branch in an old gnarled tree that spread out across the front yard and overhung the tattered porch. Vicky looked very different from her brother. Her hair was pure white, but not old-lady white, more like glowing platinum. It hung down to her shoulders in perfectly straight strands extending from the part in the middle of her head. There was never a strand out of place. Her skin was the same color as her hair, and her thin lips had an odd purplish tint to them.
She was as skinny as her brother and almost as tall. Her black oversize shirt extended below her waist. The sleeves were so long, they hid her hands. Her clothes were dirty, but she didn’t smell bad. She smelled kind of sweet and earthy, like the way the dirt smelled when Emily’s mom churned up the garden each spring. To Emily, Vicky looked like some kind of goth-hippie hybrid. In fact, Emily thought that both Drew and Vicky dressed like rock stars. Emily, with her long, curly, reddish brown hair, sneakers instead of boots, and often sunburned face (from always forgetting to put on sunscreen before she went outside), never thought she looked as cool as these two.
“Nah,” Emily responded. “It’s not that she doesn’t like you guys. I think she just doesn’t like your house.”
Vicky nodded and pushed herself off the branch. She dropped down onto the porch without making a sound and without the slightest stumble.
“Nice move,” Emily said. “You should try out for the school gymnastics team.”
“But I don’t go to your school,” Vicky said, lifting herself onto the porch railing, which shifted slightly even under her light weight.
“You could probably still join the team though,” said Emily. “It’s a bummer you guys are homeschooled. Any chance that’ll change next year?”
“Not likely,” Drew answered. “Our parents would just rather have us stay home and teach us themselves.”
“Your parents around tonight?” she asked, glancing up at the house and noticing that every window was dark.
“Yeah,” Drew said. “Somewhere in the house.”
Emily nodded as Vicky slipped off the railing and walked past her without making a sound. She followed, noticing that the floorboards creaked loudly beneath her own clumsy feet.
Drew pushed open the front door. It swung inward with a woeful squeak. Emily followed Drew and Vicky inside.
“Drew, Vicky? Is that you?” called out a woman’s voice.
“We’re upstairs,” added a man’s voice.
“Ah, Mom and Dad,” Drew said to Emily. “Told you they were around here somewhere.” Then he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Yeah, it’s us, Mom! Emily’s here. She’s gonna hang out for a while.”
“Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Strig,” Emily called up as she closed the front door.
Emily followed Drew and Vicky deeper into the house. This was not the first time she had been inside, but the weird layout of the place always surprised her a bit. It was so different from her own house right across the street. Just inside the front door, there were two narrow hallways, formed by unpainted Sheetrock walls. One turned to the left. The other led to a large room that was made entirely of wood paneling. And not just the walls, but the floor and ceiling too, as if someone had found a bunch of the stuff on sale and decided to build a whole room out of it.
“Ah, the famous Strig rec room,” Emily said as they stepped in.
“We like it,” Vicky said, somewhat defensively.
“Hey, I like it too,” Emily replied quickly. “Who wouldn’t?”
The room looked as if it had been magically transported here from a college dormitory. Its main furnishings were a Ping-Pong table and a foosball table, plus a couple of ripped-up chairs and a table with an old-fashioned rotary dial phone. A line of electric guitars and amplifiers stood in a row along one wall. A stereo, complete with a record turntable, sat in one corner. Next to it stood stacks and stacks of vinyl LPs. Drew turned on the stereo and put an album on the turntable. Punk music filled the room.
“Don’t your parents mind you playing music so loud?” Emily shouted as she flipped through the stack of albums.
“Nah,” Drew replied. “Whose records do you think these are?”
“Ready to lose?” Vicky asked, stepping up to the foosball table and grabbing the handles on one side. Emily took the other side and spun her players a few times.
“Game on,” she said, dropping the ball onto the table.
Emily and Vicky slammed and twisted the game’s handles, making the little plastic players they controlled kick the ball. Vicky reacted instinctively when Emily fired a shot at her goal. Her goalie blocked the shot, then she deftly passed the ball through Emily’s defense and fired it into the goal.
“Ugh,” Emily moaned, spinning a handle in frustration. “How are you so good at this game?”
Vicky smiled at her friend. “I’ve had a lot of practice. Don’t worry, once you’ve played as much foosball as I have, you’ll beat me. Another game?”
Emily sighed. It was nice that Vicky tried to make her feel better, but she knew that she could practice all day and all night for weeks and she’d never be as good as Vicky. “Sure, why not.”
As Emily and Vicky played another game, Drew chose the music, playing a song or two from one album, then another. When Vicky had beaten Emily two more times, Drew turned off the stereo and picked up a guitar.
“Wanna play some tunes?” he asked Emily, gesturing to another guitar.
“Or I could just beat you at Ping-Pong now,” Vicky added.
Tough choice. Emily’s dad had taught her to play a little guitar, but she didn’t practice as often as she would have liked, since it was kind of boring playing alone. She loved playing guitar with Drew and Vicky, who had been playing for far longer than she had. She always had a great time with them, and she could feel her playing improve. On the other hand, she’d love nothing more than to pay Vicky back by thrashing her at Ping-Pong.
But before Emily could decide, her cell phone sounded with a text message alert. Pulling out her phone, she saw that the message was from her mother. It simply said, IT’S NINE THIRTY.
“Ah, my mother, the human alarm clock,” Emily said. “Sorry, guys, I promised her I’d be home by nine thirty.”
“See you tomorrow night?” Drew asked.
“Can’t,” Emily said. “My parents have the whole weekend planned. We’re spending all of Saturday and Sunday at the beach. Kind of a ‘summer’s almost here’ thing.”
“Bummer,” Vicky said. “But we’ll see you Monday?”
“Definitely! See you later.”
Emily hurried across the street and slipped into her house. Her mother and father were in the living room watching TV. Franklin, their black cat, was curled up on her father’s lap.
“I’m here!” Emily announced. “Nine thirty-two on the dot. Just like we agreed.”
“Cute,” her mom said. “Thanks for coming home right away. Did you have fun? What did you do?”
“Played games and stuff, you know,” Emily replied.
“Video games?” her mom asked.
“No, they don’t have a TV, actually,” Emily said. “We played foosball.”
“Foosball?” her dad said. “I played that all the time in college. Great game. I am definitely a master. Maybe I could join you some time?”
“Dad!” Emily groaned.
“Just kidding,” her dad said.
“All right, hon,” her mother said. “Time for you to get some sleep. I’m going to wake you at seven tomorrow morning.”
Emily grimaced. Waking up early was not her thing. “Really? That early?”
“The early bird doesn’t get stuck in traffic,” her father reminded her.
Emily smiled as she trotted up the stairs to her room. That was one of her dad’s signature corny phrases.
After brushing her teeth and changing into her pajamas, Emily flopped onto her bed, popped in her earbuds, and turned on her iPod. She imagined playing the guitar chords herself. It wasn’t long before she got sleepy and took out her earbuds. Emily snuggled under the covers.
A-hooooo! Ow-ow-w! came a loud, gut-piercing howl. Emily felt the blood freeze in her veins, then remembered the DVD she had been watching. Dad must have turned on that movie. Jeez, he scared me half to—
This time the howl was louder, and Emily knew instantly that it wasn’t coming from the basement and it was too loud to be coming from the TV. The bone-chilling shriek was coming from outside.
She dashed across her room, stumbling over a stack of books she had left on the floor. Catching herself on her windowsill, she peered out the window. There, on the Strigs’ brown front lawn, a huge wolf loped toward the house. It had to be bigger than a car. The wolf’s back legs were long and slender, its chest round and muscular. Matted gray fur extended down its powerful front legs in mud-stained clumps.
But it was when Emily caught sight of the wolf’s jaws that her heart rose into her throat. Was that blood on the animal’s long snout? The wolf opened its mouth wide and howled again, revealing long white fangs flecked with specks of red.
A little yelp escaped from Emily’s throat as porch lights up and down the block flicked on. Seeming to sense her watching it, the wolf glanced over its shoulder, then quickly turned back toward the Strigs’ front door. Crouching low, as if it were stalking prey, the wolf slowly climbed the stairs onto the front porch.
“Drew and Vicky,” Emily muttered in horror. “It’s gonna hurt Drew and Vicky!”
She turned and dashed from her room. Practically flying down the stairs, she exploded out the front door. Running across the street, she felt her heart pound as she watched the wolf lunge toward the door.
“Get away from there!” Emily shouted.
At the sound of her voice, the wolf turned and stared right at her, baring its razorlike teeth and growling. Then the snarling beast turned back, pushed the door open with its snout, and walked right into the house.
“No!” Emily cried, running faster now. Reaching the porch, she took the stairs two at a time, then stopped short at the front door. She pushed the door open slowly, straining to see inside without actually sticking her head through the doorway. Pushing back against the terror shooting through her body, and shoving aside all thoughts of her own safety, Emily burst into the Strigs’ house.
© 2011 by Simon & Schuster, Inc