Arlene Watson sighed with obvious sadness as she absentmindedly pushed several stray strands of long auburn hair away from eyes of vivid cobalt blue. The exquisite tarot cards arrayed before her on the bedroom floor were again providing mixed and confusing signals. She closed her eyes for a couple of seconds, took a deep breath and released it slowly. With the stands of loose hair tucked gently behind her right ear, she attempted to refocus her mind before opening her eyes and studying the cards once again.
It was late June, and to escape the interminable boredom of yet another excessively hot and humid midweek day, she had reluctantly consented to foretell the futures of her closest friends.
"Owww!" Megan yelped as she snatched her hand away and sat up quickly on the carpeted floor of Arlene's bedroom.
"Well, don't pick up the cards while I'm doing a reading and I won't slap your hand," Arlene said, instantly regretting her action because of the hurt expression on Megan's face. Softly, she added, "Meg, I only tapped it."
"It stung," Megan whined in a hurt, little-girl voice virtually guaranteed to elicit sympathy from even the most hardened hearts, while she rubbed the back of her left hand. Repentantly she added, "I'm sorry for picking up the card, Ar. I just wanted to look at the picture. It's a new deck, isn't it?"
"It's very distracting when I'm trying to concentrate, Meg," Arlene said, shifting her lotus-like position slightly to get more comfortable. Her lithe body was already deeply tanned from the weeks of sun the group had enjoyed since school recessed for summer vacation. All of sixteen and a half years old, she was the unofficial leader of the small coterie of teenage girls in tee shirts and shorts who presently lounged in relaxed positions around her bedroom. Though tallest of the four girls at five-foot, eight-inches, it was her intelligence and personality that made her their natural leader. Softening her expression, Arlene added, "And yes, Meg, it's a new deck. Well, new to me. The deck actually appears to be quite old. In fact, I'd probably have to define it as antique. It's incredible that it's in such pristine condition. My sister picked it up at a yard sale this past weekend and gave it to me. Sarah said she got it for only a dollar. Can you imagine that?" Gently caressing one of the cards with an index finger, she added, "The cards are absolutely gorgeous, aren't they? And they appear to be hand painted. The only imperfection is a slight crease in the top left corner of a Major Arcana card. All of the others are perfect. Tell you what, Meg, you can look at the entire deck as soon as I'm done reading for Erin. Okay?" Arlene punctuated her promise with a huge smile.
Megan Kearney smiled and nodded, promptly forgetting about the mild slap to her hand. Resuming her former prostrate position on Arlene's right, her shoulder-blade-length brunette hair all but hid the arm that propped up her head as she looked on. Her adorable face, with its button nose and shining brown eyes, projected a child-like innocence as she studied the cards almost as intently as Arlene. Several inches shorter, she was often referred to as 'Arlene's shadow' among local teens. This wasn't really intended as a disparagement; it was simply that the girls were rarely seen apart. Megan's effervescent personality and infectious smile always made her a welcome addition to any social group.
"C'mon, Arlene, tell me already," Erin pleaded, ignoring the little interruption, "what do you see?"
Erin McDonald's pixie face was practically lost in the mop of mousy-brown locks that covered her head. For several years she had styled her hair to conceal as much of her face as possible. It seemed as though she had tried every acne medication and home remedy available on the planet, but the annoying and unsightly pustules continued to sprout on her otherwise pretty face like wildflowers on a Colorado hillside. At just five-foot, four-inches, she was the shortest of the quartet. Embarrassment about her complexion normally kept her reserved in mixed company, but her quiet demeanor belied the passion and intelligence visible to any truly observant person who looked into her provocative dark-brown eyes.
"The cards say the same thing as last time," Arlene said. "You'll have a long life— a very, very long life."
"Great," Erin said excitedly. "What else?"
"I'm not sure," Arlene said slowly, scrunching up her not-unpleasant face. "It's very confusing. It almost looks like the lives of two different people, because on the one hand the cards indicate you'll be a career woman, but on the other they say you'll be a mother with many children."
"Oh good, I love kids," Erin said effusively. "And it's possible to have both a career and children. You just have to manage your time effectively."
"And marry a guy who will stay home with the kiddies while you go to work," Renee Dennis quipped from her vantage point on Arlene's queen-sized bed, prompting the three girls on the floor to giggle.
Generally acknowledged as the leader during Arlene's infrequent absences from the social group, Renee was decidedly the most attractive of the four teenagers. Just an inch shorter than Arlene, she had jade-green eyes, a perfect smile with soft, lush lips, and a curvaceous body. Her flawless complexion had been the envy of Erin since the first acne pimple had popped up on Erin's face, but such jealousies had never affected their close friendship. Now, with chin resting on crossed forearms, and glistening long blond hair gently cascading over the edge of the bed, Renee watched the reading closely while doing her best to appear disinterested.
For the third time this month, Arlene was trying to clarify Erin's destiny, and they had moved from the bed to the floor so she'd have a stable surface on which to lay the cards. Large by the building standards of the early seventies when the house was built, there was absolutely no doubt that the bedroom was that of a teenage girl. Numerous posters of current boy bands and recording artists dampened the impact of vermillion walls, while a plethora of cosmetics, skin care and hair products completely covered an antique-white French-Provincial dresser with gold accents. A queen-size bed with matching headboard was draped with a soft pink bedspread, while disorderly layers of music CDs covered the mated desk. The top of a simple four-shelf bookcase jammed with romance novels was barely adequate to hold the older-model CD player with its huge speakers. Two overstuffed, comfortable, but unmatched chairs piled high with clothes left the bed and floor the only places where one could sit; the floor was not even suitable until more than a dozen pairs of shoes had been stacked against the sliding mirrored doors of a bulging clothes closet. Once cleared, the deep-pile carpeting of light tan with a thick felt pad beneath offered a comfortable place for teenager visitors to relax. The sweet, musky odor of Arlene's favorite perfume was ubiquitous in the bedroom.
"You'd better start looking for a different boyfriend, Erin," Megan said, "because Bobby Thomas isn't the type to stay home and watch over that horde of kids you'd like to have. He'd just put them in the backyard with a bowl of potato chips, lock the gate, and go looking for a party or his buddies."
"He would not," Erin said, her face a mask of feigned indignation. Then, changing her expression to one of mock-seriousness, she said, "He'd take the chips with him to munch on after he locked the kiddies in the backyard."
"At least you recognize him for what he is," Renee said as she languidly rolled over onto her back and stretched her arms out along the periphery of the bed, allowing her head to loll over the edge.
Erin sighed sadly. "I know he's shallow, selfish, and self-centered—"
"And those are his good points," Renee interrupted before screaming and pulling in her arms to protect her head from the pillow Erin swung in her direction.
"But he's sort of sweet— at times," Erin continued as she pushed the pillow behind her again and relaxed against the dresser. "I'm certainly not going to spend my life with him, but he's fun to be with as long as you don't try to take him very seriously. And it beats not having a date on the weekends."
Quickly rolling back over onto her stomach, Renee glared at Erin and asked venomously, "Is that directed at me because I just broke off with Brian?"
"Of course not," Erin said as sweetly and innocently as possible. "I'm talking about me."
"C'mon, Ar," Megan urged, "finish with Erin. I want you to tell my fortune again."
"I just read your future yesterday, Meg. It hasn't changed."
"But you didn't tell me who I'm going to marry."
Arlene expressed her slight annoyance by sighing aloud as she used both hands to push her shoulder-length, auburn hair behind her ears. "I told you it isn't clear. It looks like you'll have two husbands at the same time, or at least while you're very young."
"I can't have two husbands at the same time. That's bigotry."
"You mean bigamy," Arlene said.
"What did I say?"
"You said bigotry," Renee teased, grinning down from Arlene's bed. "That would only be accurate if you were married to both the heads of the Klu Klux Klan and the Nation of Islam at the same time."
"I've heard you do readings for other people, Arlene," Erin said, ignoring Renee, "and you always tell them very specific things. Why are you saying we have confused futures? Uh, are you holding something back? Can you see our deaths or something?"
"No, of course not! You're my best friends, and I'd tell you everything, even if it was extremely bad. My own future is just as confused. I'm getting very mixed signals from the cards about all of us. Perhaps something extremely dramatic— something we're completely unaware of as yet— is affecting our futures."
"But you always say our futures are already written."
"That's what I've always believed, but there may be some cosmic variable at work here—something that's affecting all four of us. Until that's resolved, our futures may be in flux."
"What's flux, Arlene?" Megan asked softly.
"It means fluid, Meg. Sort of like— uncertain."
"What can we do to make them less— fluxy?"
"I don't believe there's anything we can do. The cosmic forces that control our destinies operate at levels far above anything mere humans can control. We can try to change them by taking the path less traveled, but then we're just redirected back to our proper track. The harder we try to change, the more forcibly we're guided back. That's why I say we can make small choices, but not the big ones; at least not the ones that really matter. And we never know that when selecting some outrageous path we're really just following the one we were destined to walk anyway."
"I'm not sure I believe that," Erin said. "Let's say you're destined to live your life alone. You can change that simply by getting married."
"But then destiny can step in and have your husband leave you because he becomes enamored with someone else, or he could even be killed. Perhaps you were destined to marry someone fated to die very young, maybe even on your wedding night."
"That's spooky, Ar," Renee said, grimacing. "You really come out with some creepy stuff sometimes."
"That's life," Arlene said. "We can't fight it. And I only tell you what I see in the cards."
"But how can we find out what makes our futures so fluxy?" Megan persisted.
"We'll just have to wait until the cosmic forces solidify."
"But there must be some way to find out now. I know— how about if we find somebody with a crystal ball?"
"Merely owning a globe of clear, colorless glass doesn't give someone the power to see into the cosmos, Meg."
Arlene thought for a few seconds. "The only possible way might be to contact someone in touch with the forces of destiny."
"Good. Where do we find him, or her?"
"It?" Megan echoed.
"You have to make contact with someone who has crossed over, or at least with someone who has departed our world— in other words, a spirit."
"You mean a ghost?" Megan asked, horrified.
"I prefer the term 'spirit.'"
"You can't be serious?" Renee said incredulously. "This spiritualism stuff is really going to your head, Ar."
Staring at her intensely, Arlene said, "I thought you believed in this?"
"I don't really. I think of it as fun. It's something to do to kill time, like now when there's nothing else going on and we're bored."
"How about you, Erin?"
"I'm not sure, Arlene," Erin said hesitantly. "Over the past year when you've told us things that were going to happen, you've been incredibly accurate. At first I thought you were just guessing— and then later I thought you were just lucky."
"Like I said— I'm not sure. You've been right way too often lately, much more than the law of averages should allow if you were simply guessing. With other people you haven't been giving ambiguous answers, yet your predictions have been extremely accurate."
"I believe in you, Arlene," Megan said cheerfully.
Smiling, Arlene said, "Thanks, Meg. I know you do."
"So how do we contact a spirit?" Megan asked.
"With a séance, I guess."
"Let's do it."
"I think we all have to do it together, but I don't think Renee and Erin want to. How about it, Renee?"
Renee scowled and said, "It's baloney."
"What's the matter?" Megan asked. "Scared?"
"Of course not! It's just a waste of time."
"A minute ago you said you were looking for ways to kill time. I think you're scared.
"What's to be scared of?" Renee asked.
"You tell us," Arlene said.
"C'mon you guys," Megan urged, "let's do it. It'll be fun."
"Okay, I'm in," Erin said, "but I don't think I really believe in the existence of ghosts, or spirits."
Renee sighed and said resignedly, "I guess I'm in too."
"Let's go down to the dining room so we have a regular table," Arlene said, standing up and stretching her long legs to remove some minor stiffness from sitting with them crossed for twenty minutes. The floor of her bedroom was adequate for a tarot reading, but she felt a séance required more formality. There were, after all, established procedures for contacting people who had departed the mortal world.
Megan, Renee, and Erin prepared the dining room while Arlene hurried around collecting the necessary props. A pervasive darkness cloaked the room as the Venetian blinds and heavy, opaque drapes were closed and drawn. Three candles, retrieved from the fieldstone fireplace mantle in the living room, were placed in a triangular arrangement in the middle of the oak dining table. Once lit, their dancing yellow flames reflected off the highly polished wood surface and gave the pastel blue of the walls a slightly greenish appearance. A small bowl of leftover soup, with a robust odor that immediately began to saturate the air, was carefully positioned between the candles. Taking her seat, Arlene looked solemnly around the table at the others.
"What's the bowl of sludge for?" Renee quipped lightly, wrinkling her nose.
"It's beef barley soup, not sludge," Arlene replied. "I read in a book on spiritualism that you're supposed to place some kind of aromatic food in the center of the table to help attract the spirits."
"They're dead! Why would any kind of food attract them?"
"I don't know, Renee. I'm just going by what I've read."
"And what about the candles?"
"The three candles signify the circle that's required for séances. And don't ask me why. I'll function as the medium."
"Let's get on with it then," Renee said, sighing and doing her absolute best to appear bored again.
Arlene let the semi-darkness of the room work to calm the group for a minute before saying softly and solemnly, "I know that each you may not have believed in their existence before today, but spirits really do exist. They're all around us as we conduct our daily lives. Most people either can't see them or won't see them." She paused for effect again as she looked slowly into the face of each of her friends. "After today that will never again be the case for any of you."
Several seconds of complete silence ensued in the room as Arlene prepared herself mentally.
"You forgot to put on the scary music," Renee said.
"Would you prefer to leave?" Arlene asked loudly and abruptly.
Renee started at the barked words, then calmed and sighed deeply. "I'm sorry. Go on."
"If this is going to work," Arlene said solemnly, "you'll all have to put your skepticism aside for now and believe. Just this once, you must believe that spirits really do exist. Believe that they are around us, all the time; they simply dwell on a different plane of reality. You only need a proper intermediary and the desire to connect our world with theirs."
With fear-widened eyes, Megan said, "You're creeping me out, Arlene. I thought we were only going to call one spirit, not the whole spirit world."
"Once we open a door to the spirit world, we may not be able to close it, or control what comes through."
"You mean they might stay here? They might be in my bedroom when I'm trying to sleep— or getting dressed? Or when I'm in the bathtub?"
"They aren't interested in corporeal matters, Megan. They've left the concerns of the flesh behind."
"If they're not interested in concerns of the flesh, why does food still attract them?" Megan asked, echoing Renee's earlier question. Her uncomplicated mind had also immediately picked up on the inconsistency. "And even if they're not interested, it will bother me if I see them watching me."
"So you don't want to do this now?"
"I don't know."
"Decide. We're only doing this because you wanted it."
"Have you ever done it before?" Erin asked.
"No, I've only read about it in books and seen it portrayed on television and in the movies."
"So it may not work?"
"Perhaps it may; perhaps it won't."
Megan hesitated for a few seconds as she considered whether or not to participate. "Okay, let's try it."
"Everyone put your hands flat on the table, touching pinkies with the person on either side of you." As four pairs of hands touched, Arlene looked at each girl. "No more talking now. We're committed to doing this. We're going to try to summon a spirit that can tell us why our futures appear so murky and confused. Don't move your hands or it will break the circle. Now close your eyes and focus your mind on seeing into the great beyond. Free your consciousness to expand out into the never-ending cosmos."
Arlene watched as each of the girls closed her eyes and appeared to concentrate, then closed her own and tried the hardest. For as long as she could remember, she had been able to sense things about people, but those around her had always attributed her impressions and premonitions to feminine intuition, déjà vu, or simply foolishness. With the onset of puberty, her sensitivity had seemed to intensify significantly. She had begun performing tarot readings almost a year ago, after receiving her first deck as a grab-bag gift during a party, and the colorful deck of cards with their unusual pictures had given immediate focus and clarity to her insights. Her predictions had been uncannily accurate from the very start, although admittedly she had made them a bit general at first. But lately she had been sensing even more detail in the cards and revealing much of it to those for whom she read. She tended to withhold dire forecasts, or at least minify painful tidings. Her successful prognostications had led her to believe that some unseen force was actually guiding her during the readings, and she truly believed spirits could be contacted if the spiritualist was strongly attuned to the other side.
In a slightly raised voice, Arlene said, "We are here today to contact a spirit who can help us solve a mystery. We wish to know why our futures appear so uncertain. Will any spirit come forward to help us?" After waiting for a few seconds, she said, "Spirits, hear my call and respond. We need your help. Won't you come forward? Knock on the table once if you hear me."
The tension and nervousness of Renee on her left and Erin on her right flowed through Arlene. Although they'd averred disbelief, the touch from their fingers refuted their professed reservations. She felt the stiffness and anxiety in their digits, and each of them was barely breathing as they strained to hear the faintest of knocks. As the silence in the room became deafening, Arlene could hear her own increased respiration and feel the pounding of her heart.
It seemed like minutes, but it was really only seconds before the knock came. Erin and Megan shrieked briefly, their eyes opening wide with fear. With their hands pressed flat upon the table, touching their neighbor's, all knew that none of their group could have rapped on the surface. Renee didn't scream, but in the flickering candlelight, Arlene saw that she was trembling visibly. Arlene herself remained calm, on the surface.
"Spirit," Arlene said, "thank you for coming. Can you help us? Knock once for yes or twice for no."
At least ten anxious seconds passed before another faint knock came. Arlene had begun to think she might have imagined the first faint response.
Suddenly, Renee jumped up, screaming, knocking her chair over backwards in her eagerness to distance herself from the table quickly.
"It touched me!" she screamed. "The spirit touched me on my leg."
A fit of childish giggling could be heard echoing softly around the room, seeming to come from nowhere and yet everywhere at once. The heads of the three frightened visitors swiveled, trying to locate the source, but Arlene's expression merely turned angry as she bent over to look beneath the table.
"Jimmy Watson, I'm going to strangle you!" Arlene shouted, as she made a pretense of reaching for him under the table.
Her little brother was quick. The eight-year-old crawled from beneath the table where he had been hiding since he'd first heard the girls coming down the stairs. He darted through the hallway that led to the kitchen, giggling loudly as he ran. They heard the door to the backyard slam loudly a few seconds later.
"Sorry, guys," Arlene said apologetically. "I really thought we had made contact. Let's go back up to my room. My brother, the little pest, will only come back in if we try it again now."
Extinguishing the three candlewicks between saliva-moistened thumb and forefinger, Arlene returned the candles to the mantle in the living room while the other girls opened the drapes and Venetian blinds. After covering the bowl of soup and returning it to the refrigerator, Arlene followed the others upstairs.
As they settled down onto her queen-size bed, Arlene said, "I'm sorry about Jimmy. I guess we'll have to do it somewhere else. But, you know, it really seemed like I could sense a presence other than Jimmy's. I think a spirit might really have come in response to my call." She added regretfully, "If only we'd had more time to find out."
"We could use my house," Renee offered. "I don't have any bratty younger brothers."
"I have a better idea," Arlene said eagerly. "We're trying to contact a spirit, right? We should go where we're more likely to find one."
"I don't think I'm going to like this," Erin said. "You want to do it in a cemetery, don't you? I don't like cemeteries."
"No, no cemetery. But you're not far off."
"In a mortuary?" Megan asked.
"A hospital morgue?" Renee guessed.
"All good places to find earthbound spirits, but we need more privacy than they offer. I was thinking of the old Westfield Mansion."
"Oh no! No way," Megan said, "That place is haunted."
Arlene grimaced slightly and just stared at Megan until she realized what she'd said.
"Oh— sorry," Megan said, looking a little foolish, then adding quickly, "but that place scares me."
"We can't go there anyway," Erin said. "A private security company patrols it constantly. We've all seen them going in and coming out the gate. I'm not going to get arrested just so we can hold a séance in a spooky old house."
"They only patrol during the day," Arlene said. Speculatively she added, "I think they're afraid to be on the estate at night. They always leave and lock the gates before it gets dark, even in winter when it gets dark before four-thirty."
"Everybody's afraid to go there at night," Renee said. "That's why they don't have to patrol after the sun goes down. The ghost patrols for them. Everybody knows somebody who's seen the ghost that haunts the estate, or knows somebody who knows somebody who's seen it. I don't think I want to go in there either."
"Ten minutes ago we were trying to call a spirit, and now you say you're afraid of spirits?"
"That was here," Erin said, "in your dining room, not in a haunted house. I didn't really expect that you'd be able to contact a spirit anyway."
"So you're all still thinking of this as a joke? Okay, I wash my hands of the whole idea."
"I'll go, Arlene," Megan offered quickly, "if you're sure it's safe."
"It's just a spirit, Megan— an ethereal being that can sometimes appear in vaporous form. You couldn't touch it even if you wanted to."
"I'll go too," Erin said firmly. "The three of us should be enough for a séance, right?"
"I'm not sure how many are needed, but in the movies there are usually four or five. We can try with just the three of us, though."
"Oh, okay, okay, I'll go," Renee said, not really wanting to go but certainly not wishing to be excluded either. "I should have my head examined though."
"I'll ask the spirit to take a look inside," Arlene said in jest.
Renee raised her right arm and pointed her index finger at Arlene's face. "Don't even joke about the spirit coming anywhere near my head, or I'll back out."
"Alright," Arlene said, grinning, "I won't ask the spirit to look inside your head. All we really want to know is about our futures, right?"
"Should we invite anyone else?" Megan asked. "Maybe we need to have more people?"
"No, I think four will be enough. We're the only ones who need to have things cleared up. As Erin said before, the cards always provide more definitive answers about everybody but us."
"When are we going to do this?" Erin asked.
After ruminating for a few seconds as she looked at each of her friends, Arlene said, "How about tomorrow night? We can use our sleepover trick and then crash at Erin's when we're back."
"Okay by me," Erin said, nodding.
"Same here," Renee said.
"Okay with me, too," Megan said.
"Good, we'll meet at Erin's house at nine o'clock. Her mom will have left for work already, and we'll have until three a.m. to get back."
"Three a.m.?" Megan said. "How long will it take?"
"I don't know. I've heard it's easier to contact spirits near midnight. I have no idea why that might be," Arlene said, pausing for a second to think, "other than it's the time when witches allegedly congregate to practice witchcraft and sorcery. It's not really dark until nine o'clock this month anyway, and the security patrol will be around until then."
"Then why go so early?" Erin asked.
"We have to get onto the estate, find a way into the house, and then find a suitable place to hold the séance. We can't wait until the last minute because we might have to try every window and door in the building."
"I have to get going," Renee said, looking at her watch and standing. "It's almost dinnertime, and my mom will freak if I'm late again tonight. I'll see you guys tomorrow. Coming, Erin?"
"Yeah." Turning briefly towards Arlene and Megan after rising, Erin said, "See you guys."
"Bye," Megan said.
"Morrow," Arlene said, as she stood up to turn on her CD player.
w w w
At a little before nine the next evening, Arlene stopped at Megan's home, just three houses from her own. Built as part of the same upscale housing development on the outskirts of the city, Megan's home must surely have been constructed from the same set of blueprints. But for the different paint scheme and furnishings, it would be difficult to tell one home from the other.
The friendship between the two girls extended back to their infancy, and each was quick to affirm that the other was her closest friend in the whole world. Born just twelve days apart, they had shared a playpen as infants while their moms visited, and they had been sharing everything else since. Both sixteen now, they'd celebrated their birthdays together in January.
For their foray into a mansion long devoid of occupants, both girls had chosen to wear skin-tight, stone-washed jeans, cotton tee shirt, and casual, soft-soled shoes. Megan, ready for their adventure onto the grounds of the unoccupied estate when Arlene arrived, quickly grabbed a handbag crammed full with all the essentials of a teenage girl, and a large brown paper bag that left the delectable aroma of freshly popped corn in its wake as she hurried to the door. Arlene would have to pass Megan's house anyway when walking the two blocks to Erin's or Renee's, so this was the way it had always been; Arlene would stop at Megan's house, and they would continue on together.
Erin and Renee had grown up in a like manner, playing together as toddlers. Both were also sixteen now. The four girls, living two blocks apart, had first met when they started kindergarten in a local public school and had been inseparable through elementary school, junior high, and now high school. All four were looking forward to being juniors when the fall school session started in six weeks. During their daily phone calls, the four girls had decided what each would bring with them to the séance.
As expected, Renee was already at Erin's house when Arlene and Megan arrived. The Cape Cod style house, appropriate for this southeastern Massachusetts city of New Bedford, was as different from the raised-ranch style homes that Arlene's and Megan's families owned as houses could be. A steep stairway rose from a tiny eat-in kitchen to undersized bedrooms with inadequate headroom because the upstairs ceilings were coincident with the steeply pitched roof. Erin's mom had already left for the hospital where she worked as a head nurse, and her father was gone as well. Of course he had left six years earlier, leaving behind an emptied savings account and a note of profound apology in which he declared having come to the realization that he just wasn't cut out to be a husband and father. The last they'd heard he was prospecting for gold in New Zealand.
"You guys ready?" Arlene yelled through the screen door at the side entrance.
"C'mon in," they heard Renee yell back from upstairs. "We'll be ready in a second. Erin's just changing her shirt— again. Did you bring the stuff?"
"I brought candles and a bag of pretzels," Arlene shouted as they entered the kitchen.
"I have popcorn," Megan shouted.
"Good, we've got cold bottled water and chocolate bars."
"I brought a flashlight," Arlene said loudly, "but it would be better if we had a second."
"I have one," Erin said, reducing the volume of her voice as she came clip-clopping down the varnished honey-oak stairs in open-toed platform sandals with Renee right behind her, "but the batteries are dead. Have you figured out how we're going to get onto the estate, Ar?"
"I walked past there this afternoon. I think we can squeeze through the front gates. The chain is pretty loose. It seems like it's intended more to prevent cars from going in than to stop people from entering the grounds."
"That makes sense, kinda," Renee said. "Anybody who wants to get in could simply climb over the wall. It's only about seven feet high."
"Seven feet?" Megan exclaimed loudly. "It might as well be a hundred feet high. I could never climb over a seven-foot-high wall."
"Don't be such a wuss."
"I'm not a wuss, but I'm not a jock either."
"You're a wuss if you can't climb over a seven-foot wall," Renee said, although she had considerable doubt that she could manage it without a ladder.
"Okay, let's go," Arlene said, trying to defuse the disagreement before it really got going. "Don't worry, Meg, we don't have to climb over any walls."
Little more than a twenty-minute walk from Erin's house, the gated entrance of the huge Westfield estate was located along what was once the main road in the area. A newer route with far fewer twists, turns, dips, and rises had long ago replaced it as the main thoroughfare. Few houses dotted the road near the estate entrance, and not a single car passed while the four teenagers twisted and contorted their supple bodies to squeeze between the two massive wrought iron gates that completed the formidable barrier surrounding the property. The heavy, rusted chain and padlock clanked loudly against the gates as the girls pushed and pulled themselves through, but there was no one nearby to hear the noise. Once inside the massive walls surrounding the estate, they could only be seen by someone standing directly in front of the gated entrance— a very unlikely happenstance on that long, empty stretch of road after dark— and then only while the girls were within a hundred feet of the gate.
Disappearing quickly through two thick, carefully aligned rows of red maple trees wearing bright summer coats of green, the driveway leading up to the seventy-room mansion curved gracefully as it rose gently to meet the house. From what Arlene had heard, the estate had been the center of social life in the area from the time it was built around 1880 until the mid 1940's. The mansion had reportedly been empty now for some sixty years, but the estate was still minimally maintained, at least to the extent that the house remained tightly sealed against the often severe New England winters.
The way was clear, and the four girls experienced no difficulties while using only the light from the full moon to illuminate their path. As Arlene tried to imagine what the estate must have looked like in bygone eras, night suddenly turned to day. She saw lush, green, immaculately manicured lawns in place of the overgrown grassy acres that a second earlier had bordered the driveway. The smell of salt air from the nearby ocean was immediately overcome by the fragrance of gardens overflowing with the fugacious blossoms of brilliantly colored flowers and plants. She closed her eyes tightly for a second and shook herself mentally. When she reopened them, it was dark and the barely visible unkempt vegetation was back, but she retained the other image in her mind. She decided it would be better not to say a word to her girlfriends lest they change their minds about entering the house.
Two additional rows of red maple trees, closer to the house, obscured the mansion almost entirely from view until visitors were less than a hundred feet from the front portico. Arlene's fanciful musings about the previous grandeur of the estate having been instantly replaced by an image that seemed as real as anything she had ever experienced was probably responsible for her steadily escalating sense of foreboding as they neared their destination. The nervousness of her friends seemed to increase as well, but perhaps it was only because dense clouds had moved to completely block the light from the moon just before the house came into view. With the trees obstructing what little diffused moonlight remained, it had suddenly become impossible to see the driveway. Arlene snapped on her flashlight and aimed it down at their path to light their way as they walked.
As they completed their passage through the last row of trees, the moon re-emerged powerfully from behind dense clouds, casting long eerie shadows as it again lit their path. Arlene flicked off the flashlight and looked up just in time to see Megan suddenly stop walking, stiffen, and let out a blood-curdling scream.