“I know why they’re going to tear the old Bently place down,” Troy announced late one afternoon as night was starting to creep around us. “It’s because it’s haunted!” he said in a whisper.
“Everybody knows that,” Shane muttered, swallowing hard and glancing down the street toward the Bently house.
As long as I could remember, we had all been afraid of the old Bently house. Nobody had lived in it for years. Most of the windows were boarded up, the paint had peeled off, and the doors that were left sagged and squeaked on their hinges.
Dad said that he could remember when there had been tall oak trees, green lawn, and trimmed bushes all around the house. The oak trees were still there, standing like big bushy giants around the old house to guard it and keep snoopers away. But the lawn had been taken over by weeds, and the bushes were nothing but tangles. Every time I had to pass the Bently house, I shuddered and tried not to look as I sprinted past it.
“Do you figure any ghosts live there?” I asked, glancing first at Troy and Shane and then at Justin, who was sitting beside me.
“The place is packed with them,” Shane answered.
“Once, I walked up on the front porch and peeked in the window,” I bragged.
Troy, Shane, and Justin looked at me. I could tell that they didn’t believe me. “It was afternoon, though,” I explained, shrugging my shoulders, “and I was with my Uncle Dan. But it was still kind of scary.”
“What did you see, Jimmy?” Shane wanted to know.
“Nothing. It was too dark, and something started banging on the side of the house. I was halfway home in about three steps. I didn’t want to go back, even with Uncle Dan.”
“I wouldn’t just go up on the Bently porch,” Troy said in his cocky way. “I’d go right inside!”
We stared at Troy. He was the biggest kid in the neighborhood, the strongest and the bravest too. If anybody would dare go into the Bently house, Troy would.
“I would too,” Shane boasted.
I licked my lips and added, “Me too.”
We looked at Justin, waiting for him to make his brag. He just sat there, his eyes wide and his face looking a little white. He swallowed and rasped uneasily, “Mom and Dad told me to stay away from the Bently house.”
“Don’t blame your mom and dad,” Troy scoffed. “You’re just chicken.”
Justin shook his head. “I don’t believe in ghosts. My dad said that I could get hurt in there because it’s falling apart. And that’s why they’re going to tear it down—not because of ghosts.”
Troy jumped to his feet, stuck out his chest, and put on his toughest look. “Jimmy and Shane and I are going in there right now,” he said. “If you don’t come, you’re just chicken.”
I felt my heart flip-flop in my chest, and it felt like someone had sucked all my breath away. Mom and Dad had told me to stay away from the house too. I just didn’t know how to tell Troy and Shane that. I slowly got to my feet and stood next to Troy, and Shane followed me.
We looked at Justin, who was looking at the ground. For a long time he didn’t say anything. Finally he looked up and said, “I’m not afraid—well, maybe a little—but the main reason I’m not going is that Mom and Dad told me not to.”
Right then I was wishing that I could tell Troy and Shane that I couldn’t go either, for the same reason, but I didn’t have the nerve.
“You’re just a chicken!” Troy sneered at Justin. “But if you want to hang around with us any more, you’d better come with us.”
“You could get hurt in that old house,” Justin insisted.
Troy laughed, and Shane and I joined in. “What a chicken!” Shane gave Justin a little shove. “Go on home to your mommy so that nothing will get you.”
“Yeah,” I said, wishing that my mouth wasn’t so dry and my heart wasn’t beating so fast. “Go home and let your mom tuck you into bed.”
Leaving Justin standing there, the three of us started toward the Bently house. We laughed and bragged all the way, telling each other that we weren’t afraid of anything. But every time I laughed, I got a sick, sinking feeling in my stomach.
Outside the Bently house we stopped. Shadows were lurking everywhere, making strange, scary shapes.
“Do you think we ought to get a flashlight?” Shane asked. His voice cracked, and he coughed to cover it up.
“We don’t need a flashlight,” Troy muttered. “Flashlights are for sissies like Justin.”
I wanted a flashlight. I wanted one bad! But I didn’t want to be called a chicken, so I just looked over at Troy and asked, “How are we going to get in?”
“In back. Just to the side of the big oak tree, there’s a window that we can squeeze through. The boards have fallen off.”
We found the window that Troy had told us about, and we had to pull off two more boards to make a hole big enough to climb through. Shane and I helped Troy through first; then he helped pull us up into the house.
A few gray bars of light streaked across the room from cracks in the windows. It smelled musty, and when we moved, the boards under our feet creaked and groaned. And when we just stood still, the house made creaking, groaning noises all by itself.
“Well, we’re inside,” I squeaked. “Now we can say that we’ve been in the—”
“We’re not going to just stop here!” Troy broke off my sentence with contempt. “Just coming in the window’s nothing. We need to explore.”
“Shouldn’t we have a light, though?” I asked.
“Are you chicken like Justin?”
“Yeah,” Shane joined in, “are you chicken too?”
I shook my head—not that they could see it—and wished that I was with Justin.
“Let’s go,” Troy ordered.
We started shuffling forward. I could barely see Troy and Shane as we left the first room and tiptoed down a long, dark hall. Cobwebs brushed against my face, and dust filled my nose. Suddenly the flooring beneath our feet began to shudder. We all froze, not knowing which way to go. Then the floorboards buckled. Before we knew it, we were falling into a deep, dark hole with dust and boards tumbling about us. I heard somebody scream. It seemed like we were going to fall forever. Then my feet jarred against something solid, and I sprawled forward on my face.
I lay still, wondering if I was still alive. My arms felt like they’d been scraped half off, and my side burned like it had the time I fell off my skateboard onto the pavement. I was just getting ready to try to move, when I heard a groan.
“Oh, my arm!” someone whimpered. “My arm’s killing me. I can’t even move it.”
“Is that you, Troy?” I heard Shane ask.
The only answer from Troy was more moaning and groaning.
“Where are we?” I called out. “I can’t see anything.”
“Probably in the cellar,” Shane answered. “We shouldn’t have come into this creepy old house,” he sobbed. “I didn’t really want to come here. It’s all your fault, Troy. It was your great idea!”
Troy’s only answer was, “Oh, my arm. I think I broke my arm.”
“What are we going to do?” I asked, sitting up. I was sore, but I didn’t have any broken bones.
“I hope somebody finds us,” Shane whimpered.
“Who’s going to find us?” I snapped. “Nobody even knows we’re here.”
“Justin knows,” Shane said hopefully.
“But we sent him away,” I reminded him. “He won’t know we’re missing until tomorrow. Besides, after calling him a chicken, he won’t want to help us, anyway.”
Shane and I managed to get to our feet, and we started yelling, hoping that someone would hear us. But the sound seemed to stay down in the hole with us.
Finally we sat down quietly, breathing hard and staring into the blackness. Then we heard footsteps. They were faint at first, and I wondered if I was just hearing the creaky sounds of the house. Then they got louder and louder and closer and closer.
“What’s that?” Shane rasped.
“Can you hear it too?” I whispered.
Even Troy stopped his moaning as the footsteps came closer. Then a dim, yellowish light shone above us, and Justin called out, “Jimmy! Is that you?”
“Justin!” I started to breathe again. “How’d you find us?”
“I waited. When you didn’t come out, I ran home and got a flashlight.”
“Get us out of here,” Shane whimpered. “We’re stuck.”
“And Troy’s hurt,” I added. “He thinks that his arm’s broken.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll get help.”
It seemed like Justin was gone forever. But finally we heard voices. Justin’s dad was there, and so were Shane’s dad and Brother Richards and Rusty Hammond and my dad and Troy’s dad. They had ropes and a ladder and had us out of there almost before we knew it. Everybody was pretty sure that Troy’s arm was broken, so his dad hurried him off to the hospital.
That very night our dads boarded up the Bently house tighter than ever. Shane, Justin, and I just stood out by the curb and watched them work.
“I’m sorry for calling you a chicken,” Shane mumbled to Justin.
“Me, too,” I said.
Justin shrugged. “It’s OK.”
“No it isn’t,” I added. “We were wrong. We said that you were afraid because you wouldn’t go into the house with us, but we were the ones who were really afraid. At least I was. I was the real chicken.”
Justin stared at me, not quite understanding.
“I was afraid to say no. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to go into that old house, but I was afraid to tell Shane and Troy no. I was afraid that they would call me a chicken too. I was afraid to do what was right.”
Shane nodded his agreement.
I thought a moment. “I guess a lot of times it takes more courage not to do something than it takes to do it.” I smiled over at Justin. “Thanks for saving us. I don’t know what Troy or Shane think, but you can be my friend anytime.”