Once upon a time, there was a stupid boy with an irrepressible need for coolness. Cody kicked an errant clump of dirt as he revised his obituary. Once upon a time, there was an idiotic almost-teenager who wasn’t nearly as cool as he pretended.

“You’re not going to chicken out, are you?” Rita taunted with a sly smile. The burnt orange light of the setting sun gave her an angelic glow. She was born cool. If there was a bouncer guarding the entry to popularity, he wouldn’t even check her ID. She probably never felt the need to impress anyone.

“Pssh.” Cody waved the accusation away. “You think I’m afraid of some old house? I’m gonna be on first-name terms with every ghost in this place by sunrise. Just you wait. I’m gonna walk into the police station tomorrow and solve a cold case.”

Rita laughed, like Cody hoped she would. She was the prettiest girl at Begonia Middle School. Dark hair, brown eyes, and mile-long legs; any guy would be lucky to take her to the Valentines Dance.

Distracted by posturing, Cody tripped over a crack in sidewalk and almost fell on his face. This was a much nicer neighborhood than the leaning apartment building Cody called home. Older, too. It must be. He could see the ocean from the right angle, but the houses were more often modest bungalows than luxurious mansions. It must’ve been built before all the outsiders decided the Island made a good vacation destination.

He was distracting himself from the upcoming ordeal. Cody chewed on the inside of his cheek. It would be fine. Short of developing superpowers, this was the only way a girl like Rita would give him a second glance. Then again, Jeremy Fischer gained minor telekinesis last fall, and he had to leave for a government boarding school that probably didn’t even have Valentine Dances.

Cody winced at the thought. Everyone talked about how lucky Jeremy was, but Cody had seen the look on the principal’s face during the announcement. Mom had gotten that tight crease between her eyes when she heard the news. She’d made him swear to call her immediately if he ever started spitting acid or anything. Spitting acid seemed like a pretty easy way to boost his popularity, but it wasn’t without its drawbacks. Despite being significantly less cool than Jeremy ever was, Cody was in a much better position to win Rita’s affections.

Rita’s friend, the quiet one with chunky glasses, looked nervously through the slouching bows of gnarled trees. “The house is falling down. It’s not safe.”

“It’s fine.” Rita dismissed the worrywart with a casual flip of her perfect hair.

Josh bent his head close to Cody. It took some doing. His growth spurt came early. “You really don’t have to do this. There are other girls. Myrtle is cute, right? We’re cousins. I’ll hook you up.”

Myrtle wasn’t half as amazing. Rita and Cody were destined to be together; Cody just had to prove it to her. Before he could answer, the rest of their group chimed in.

“You’d be crazy to pass up a chance to go to the dance with an eighth grader.” Hardy said.

“Yeah, and the girls will tell everyone if you chicken out. You gotta go through with this,” Pantser agreed.

They stopped in front of the gravel driveway at the end of the cul-de-sac. Unlike the classical haunted mansion with a jagged roof and vaguely Victorian aesthetic, this farmhouse had a barn roof and flaking white paint. The peeling, patchwork porch wrapped around the house like an alligator skin belt. It was certainly no manor house, never the seat of the Island’s most famous bloodlines, but it was certainly large enough to accommodate a respectable upper-class family.

According to second-grade social studies, it represented one of the oldest farms on the Island. The historical society regularly threatened self-immolation when the developers openly spoke of bulldozing it. The owners would probably give out tours if it wasn’t so creepy. It leered over the surrounding houses like a cat surveying the mice.

Cody didn’t need to hear the rumors to hate this house. He would’ve loathed it on sight even if it had belonged to the patron saint of video games. It oozed predatory malice. Instinctively, Cody understood what Rita seemed to miss: this rickety old farmhouse ate people.

He glanced at Rita, but she was undisturbed by the sight. Cody shoved his fanciful fears to the back of his mind. What kind of building gobbled up humans? Even if it was sentient, and it couldn’t be, the routine munching of inhabitants worked against its best interest. Somebody had to carry out the maintenance after all.

Cody glanced at the dilapidated exterior and shoved that thought away, too.

“Come on, Cody,” Josh tried again. “Your mom thinks we’re all sleeping over at Pantser’s. She’s gonna freak if Mrs. Levi does a headcount and realizes you’re gone.”

Cody hesitated. Mom had enough worries without him adding to it. Already, she worried about his grades, his social life, and his lack of supervision. She leapt at every opportunity to send him to sleepovers, where there would be at least one adult nearby to handle emergencies. Mom couldn’t help working nights and weekends, but she always blamed herself when trouble occurred in her absence.

Let one paper towel drape over the toaster…

Really, the fire hadn’t been that big.

“Well?” Rita cocked her head and put her hand on her hip. “Are you backing down?”

Cody teetered between choices. For one brief moment he saw his life stretch out in two directions. He could brave the haunted house, take Rita to the dance, and become a hero of middle schoolers, or he could chicken out and spend the rest of his life in shame. He looked between Josh’s pleading eyes and Rita’s amused judgement. Pantser and Hardy nodded energetically.

“No way.” Cody climbed the stairs backwards to maintain eye contact. Only liars broke eye contact, and he’d change schools if Rita thought he was a liar. Or a coward. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“If you’re still alive.” Hardy said in a deep, movie trailer voice.

Cody flipped him off and climbed the last step. He swallowed. The paint peeled away from the door in bright, red curls. Blood red, a voice that sounded like Josh whispered in his ear. He could be playing video games and pigging out on pineapple pizza like Mom assumed. Cody pulled on the door. The wood bowed, but didn’t budge.

“It’s locked.” Cody turned back to the watching middle schoolers. “I don’t have a key, so…”

“Pull harder. The door is probably just stuck.” Rita said.

“You could break a window.” Hardy suggested.

Reluctantly, Cody turned back to the door. He pulled with all his might. His heart dropped into his checkered sneakers when the door came loose. Cody looked over his shoulder.

“Myrtle.” Josh mouthed. Pantser and Hardy gave thumbs ups and eager head nods. Rita’s friend looked like she was going to vomit.

Rita grinned. It wasn’t as pretty or heart-stopping as her usual smiles. “Good lu-uck!” She said in a sing-song voice. “Don’t let the ghosts eat you.”

Cody gave the crowd a jaunty wave and stepped over the threshold. The door slammed shut behind him. It was just the wind, right? The Island had wind. Sure, winds that strong usually stuck to the shore, but what else could’ve slammed the door?

His bravado faded in the quiet, stale air. Though he was only a door away, the outside seemed a world away. He couldn’t hear Pantser’s squeaky excitement, though Cody knew his friend must be in raptures. He couldn’t hear any voices at all. Had his friends already left? Surely they would have waited to see if a chainsaw-wielding nutjob chased him out.

Cody took a slow step into the dirty foyer. The dark, gritty floorboards creaked. Cody craned his neck at the swaying chandelier. There were no cobwebs. He thought haunted houses always had cobwebs. It wasn’t as dusty as he thought it’d be, either.

Mom cleaned houses, schools, yachts, country clubs, and anything else her agency could find. Sometimes, when rich people wanted to spend a few weeks in their vacation house, she brought Cody along. He’d sit on the steps, or do his homework in a kitchen the patrons had never even seen. Sometimes there was sand tracked in, or debris drifted through a cracked window. The dust though, the dust was always white.

The grime on the floor was thick, solid, and black. It was like a river of molten tar had swelled up from the baseboards before eventually drying out under the flickering lightbulbs. Cody left no footprints as he crossed the groaning wood floor. The observance made the nape of his neck prickle. He wanted to see the traces of his presence. It was a silly thought. Everyone had seen him enter the farmhouse. Still, his earlier feelings lingered. This was the sort of place that swallowed up plucky seventh-graders.

Cody started. He spun around, certain he’d heard a noise. It could have been the scuff of a shoe, or the scraping sound of a chair pushed back. The emptiness seemed to glare back at him. Cody tilted his head, listening intently. There! Movement upstairs.

What if someone was living there? Was it possible a new owner had moved in without anyone noticing? A historian, maybe, or one of those ghost hunters with their own show. Maybe an outta-towner was trying to break into the fixer upper market. Cody couldn’t imagine the farmhouse was worth much, but outsiders were stupid. They might not know its reputation.

Cody crept around the corner. If he could find the kitchen, surely he’d know if someone was living within the haunted house. Slowly, sticking to the walls and pausing every step to listen, Cody crept into the kitchen. The rounded appliances and checkered floor dated it seventy years out of style. In the reddish light of a setting sun filtered through dirt-glazed windows, he could see it was painted in pastels.

He wrinkled his nose. Cody could never tell mom about this. Ever. If she got over the ‘sneaking out of a sleepover’ part, she’d want to ‘liberate’ a few of the more refurbish-able appliances.

Cody scrunched his eyes shut, took a deep breath, and yanked open the refrigerator door. Nothing. It wasn’t even cold.

Oh. Duh. Cody was stupid. There wasn’t any electricity in the house. One by one, he opened the cabinets. His spirits sunk lower with each empty shelf. No food. No dishes. No sign of life.

He’d almost hoped there would be. If someone had moved in, he’d have an excuse to run out.

No. What was he thinking? Cody was going to spend the night, he was going to take Rita to the Valentines dance, and he was going to be known as the bravest kid in the seventh grade. He just needed a plan. A strategy, like when he and Josh won the dodgeball tournament by dragging a bag of dodgeballs up into the gym rafters. They hid up there and decimated the competition. The principal ventured out to demand their return and accidentally took a dodgeball to the face. Josh and Cody didn’t even get suspended. The concussion made her memory of the event shaky, and the only other adult witness thought it was hilarious.

It was awesome.

The memory of Josh’s laughing face scared away the lingering unease that pressed against him. It felt like he was breaching the surface after a long stint underwater.

Cody took a deep breath of stale, musky air. The Strategy. Heros always had a strategy. Heroes never let a little haunting slow them down.

He should probably find a good spot to camp out before the sun disappeared entirely. No, he should check the rest of the house for chainsaw-wielding maniacs and bloodstained phantoms. He probably had at least an hour of light after the sun dipped into the ocean, but he’d better get a move on.

Drawing on hard-won video game knowledge, Cody started at the bottom of the house. He checked his corners and flipped aside curtains to check for lurking ghosts. He glanced at the underside of the couch and scanned each dining room chair for the imprint of a spectral butt.

There was a trapdoor underneath the saggy, quilted armchair. Cody wouldn’t have noticed it at all if he hadn’t given the lounger an extra inspection. It was exactly the sort of easy chair Grandad would have loved.

He saw the crack in the wood floor and knelt to examine it. Ignoring the sting of the grit rubbing into his bare knees, Cody traced the edges with a finger. It was almost undiscernible. He tried to pry it open, but only succeeded in shredding his stubby fingernails.

A soft click and a whirl made him jump backwards in an uncomfortably panicked crab-walk. After working up the courage to look, Cody noticed a tiny panel had shifted to reveal a fingerprint scanner.

His brows furrowed. He scrubbed his eyes, but the fingerprint scanner was still visible. What was it doing in an old house like this? Had someone installed a floor safe? Was it a hidden bolt hole for drugs? That would explain all the rumors of disappearances.

Curious, Cody pressed his index to the scanner. It beeped, and the panel shut. Cody looked around for something to pry open the trapdoor, but came up empty. Maybe he should leave it be. If the trapdoor belonged to drug dealers, perhaps even the chainsaw-wielding type, they wouldn’t want him poking around.

The black grime was thicker in some places, and sticky like spilled soda in others. It gave Cody the heebie jeebies in ways he couldn’t articulate- even to himself. It was almost worse than the soft scuttling sounds that seemed to follow him.

Part of Cody wanted to call the search off. He could camp out in the foyer, preferably with the door cracked. The other part was too jumpy to settle down. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was in the house. Holding his flashlight like a club, Cody slowly climbed the stairs. The crystals on the chandelier scattered the sparse dusk light across the gingham stair runner. It created a hypnotic, swaying effect that made the stairs reel like a boat out at sea.

Cody froze underneath the hot, moist breath. Skin crawling, goosebumps rising, his hand trembled around the smooth banister.

It was on his neck. Something was breathing on his neck.

A puff of hot air caressed the shell of his ear. Cody’s mind went blank. He darted up the stairs, tripping over the last and sprawling across the black grime. Scrambling to his feet, Cody turned to meet the ghost.


There was nobody there. No wisp of gray mist. No translucent chainsaw murderer. The chandelier swayed gently, perhaps pushed by a drafty window. Dust particles, stirred up by Cody’s panic and illuminated by the fading sunbeams, drifted onto the blue gingham stair runner. Everything looked as normal as the interior of a haunted house could be.

Cody swallowed. Everyone knew ghosts were cold. It was probably just his overactive imagination.

He returned to the search, heart still beating a frantic staccato. Step by terrifying step, Cody investigated the upstairs. The entirety of the second floor smelled like mothballs, or at least, he assumed it did. There was a musky, sour sort of aftertaste that commandeered his nose. The bedrooms were bare of blankets and pillows, but the strange, black grime was everywhere. There was no dust on top of the wardrobes or bookshelves. There were no cobwebs on the slatted pine headboards. Cody hadn’t seen any sign of spiders at all. He hated spiders, but their absence seemed more alarming than the eight-legged horrors he’d expected.

Strangest of all were the locks. Cody touched the row of locks lightly as his gaze skittered across the bathroom. In every room, the locks lined the inside of the door like zipper teeth. They were even on the inside of the linen closet.

Why? It didn’t make sense. One lock, sure. Everyone liked privacy. But why so many? Wasn’t one lock enough? Cody tried to think logically, but there was a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. The previous owners went to enormous lengths to keep something out. Cody doubted it was just a snooping mom.

After finishing with the bathroom, Cody paused underneath the trapdoor. He stared up at the pull rope with trepidation. If a ghost were hiding anywhere, it’d be in the attic. That’s what Hollywood said. Then again, what if there wasn’t a ghost? What if there was a lunatic living up there, like in that movie Hardy smuggled to the last sleepover? Cody could practically hear the roar of a chainsaw starting up.

A floorboard creaked at the end of the hallway. Cody froze, head still awkwardly pointing up at the pull rope. He tried to look through the corner of his eye. He wasn’t sure acknowledging the noises was smart. Cody wasn’t sure why he thought that. It was instinct, maybe, a primordial urge warning him to pretend obliviousness. A scratching sound threatened his resolve. Something was climbing up the wall.

Cody’s heart raced. It beat in his ears like a hand-drum. His weight shifted onto his toes. A lump grew in his chest. It was hard and hot, like a molten baseball sunk into his sternum. Cody might’ve been worried if he could hear his thoughts over his heartbeat. Slowly, he turned.

There was nothing there, and yet the noises persisted. Desperately, he scanned for an animal, a squirrel! A bat! Something, anything! But there was nothing to be seen. A rip appeared in the flowered wallpaper. A strip peeled downwards.


Cody jumped. Something just landed on the floor. The invisible something scuttled towards him.

He fled.

Cody sprinted. His legs carried him faster than he’d ever run. He threw himself into the bedroom at the end of the hall. He slammed it shut and fumbled with the locks. His fingers slipped.


Something massive slammed into the other side of the door. Cody scrambled to pull the locks shut. He darted across the room to the little window. It was too far down to jump. Cody would break something for sure.


The door shook under the force of the Something. Cody reevaluated the distance. It was survivable. He grabbed the sill and yanked, but the window stayed shut. Cody heaved and pulled. He threw his weight against the sill, but it wouldn’t budge. The lump in his chest grew. Bigger. Hotter. He hit the window with his flashlight. It bounced off.


Cody dove for his flying flashlight. He pressed his back against the window and waited. It was silent, but for his own ragged breathing. Slowly, the lump shrank into a warm marble. There were no retreating steps or attempts to break in.

After a millennia, Cody slid to the ground, still watching the door. He waited until the sunlight faded and the room was enveloped in darkness. There were no more sounds, not even the strange scuttling sounds that first drew him upstairs. The flashlight he held, ready but turned off. He didn’t know how long the batteries would last.

He climbed to his feet on shaking legs. Cody wanted to live. Rita and the Valentine dance didn’t matter anymore. This was about survival. He needed to get out of the house. Cody examined the window, looking for anything that might keep it closed. There was a ring of hardened foam around the sill. Cody scratched at it, but it seemed impervious to his attempts to dig it out.

Cody looked back to the door. He had to get out of this place. He was going to die if he stayed. Mom was going to find out he was dead, and then she was going to cry, and stupid Rita probably wouldn’t even come to his funeral because she hated wearing black, and Cody wouldn’t even care because he’d be dead and-

He’d have to risk the monster.

Cody crept over to the door. As quietly as he could, he slid the locks. He took a deep breath and turned the handle.

The door didn’t move. Cody pulled harder. He threw his weight backwards. He heaved and strained, yanking so hard the door began to bow. The door was stuck. An unmovable force kept it shut tight against the rest of the world. Cody released the handle and backed away.

“Right.” He whispered to himself, trying to get control of his breathing. “Right. I’ll just stay here.”

Cody relocked the door before curling up underneath the window. Even if it was just as impenetrable as the door, it made the room feel less claustrophobic. He certainly wasn’t going to sit with his back to the door. He turned off the flashlight and laid it across his lap. Cody had fruit snacks in his pockets, but he couldn’t have been less interested in food.

It wasn’t difficult to stay awake, but the longer he stared into the darkness, the more his eyes played tricks on him. He saw shapes in the darkness, shadows somehow blacker than the nighttime room. A chainsaw, a spider, and Mom’s heartbroken face all made an appearance. When Cody blinked, they were gone.

In an effort to distract himself, Cody counted seconds. He lost count every time he saw a new image in the shadows, but he had to have at least passed midnight. A scuffing sound in the hallway broke him from his quiet panic.

The doorknob turned. Cody scrambled to his feet and brandished the heavy flashlight. A beam of light blinded him.

“Cody?” The familiar voice whispered. A wave of relief swept through Cody, only to be pushed aside by terror. It had to be a trick. Josh couldn’t have just walked inside, not without meeting the Something.

“Josh?” Cody whispered.

“Yeah, of course it’s me. Who’d you think I-”

“Lower your voice. Tell me something only the real Josh would know.” He held his breath, knowing his worst fears were about to be confirmed or refuted.

“What?” Josh, or the Something pretending to be Josh, sounded bewildered.

Cody wracked his brains for something suitable. “In first grade, what happened to Hardy’s lunchbox?”

“You accidentally took it home, and then we hid it in the fireplace so the police wouldn’t come arrest us. His mom wasn’t even mad, though. She just made him use a paper bag the rest of the year. Why are you asking me this?”

“Josh.” He should be terrified for Josh’s sake, but all he could feel was relief. Cody grabbed his friend by the front of the shirt. Josh shifted back, but Cody couldn’t force his fingers to unclench. “Why are you here? How’d you get inside?”

“Uh, the door? Same as you. I wasn’t gonna leave you to deal with the ghost on your own.”

“We gotta go, Josh. Something is in here.”

“Yeah. A ghost. That’s why I came.”

“No.” Cody almost sobbed the word. “Something worse. It locked me in this room. We need to leave before it comes back.”

“The door was unlocked?”

Cody didn’t have time for this. He understood Josh’s skepticism, but he was far past caring about how sane he sounded.

“Look.” Cody pointed his flashlight at the locks on the door. “Someone added these locks to keep something out. The windows are sealed shut. I haven’t seen any spiders or mice or anything since I got here. Something is in here, and it’s going to kill us if we don’t leave now.”

“You’re just messing with me.” Josh didn’t sound certain.

“I’m serious. Screw Rita. I want to live.”

“Okay.” Josh’s voice was tight with fear. “Are we running or tiptoeing?”

Instead of answering, Cody crept through the doorway. Josh grabbed his shoulder and followed. They should probably turn off the flashlights, but Cody didn’t know if he could. The only thought scarier than waking up the Something was running into it in the dark. Besides, it probably had night vision. Monsters always did in movies.

As they reached the top of the stairs, a soft scratching sounded from the room they’d just left. Josh swung his beam of light towards it.

Cody swatted it down. “Don’t let it know you noticed it. Wait, do you think ghosts are like tigers? Tigers don’t hunt animals that notice them.”

“That would mean it’s a carnivore. And a ghost.” Josh whispered back.

The scratching sound came closer. Abandoning all subterfuge, Cody yanked on Josh’s arm and sprinted down the steps, two at a time. The Something barreled after them. Cody slipped and fell down the remaining steps. In the split second it took Cody to process the sudden fall, Josh yanked him to his feet. They dashed through the foyer. Heart pounding in time with the monstrous thuds stalking his steps, Cody slammed into the door.

Josh rattled the handle. Cody yanked with all his might. They were inches away from escape, but the door wouldn’t budge. He looked up into Josh’s petrified face.

The hard lump of heat grew in Cody’s chest. It burned into his throat and seared his mouth. The Something was right on them. There wasn’t time to run. The thuds stopped. Cody could see the indent where the weight of the Something crushed the wood floor. A whisper brushed over the black grime, like a cat preparing to pounce.

Cody screamed as the Something leapt for their throats. He threw up his hands. The lump exploded into a supernova.


A deep, throaty burst of sound pushed the monster away. Apparently crawling out of the dent in the wall, it scuttled upstairs.

Cody took a deep breath, and then another. The lump in his chest cooled. The molten baseball no longer boiled beneath his skin. He glanced down at his hands, certain he would find charred lumps in the place of his fingers.

Nothing. They were ordinary human hands, unmarred by the searing heat pushed through him. It was difficult to see in the dark, but he couldn’t spot even the slightest of blisters. To his surprise, Cody realized he’d felt no pain as the lump burned through his chest. It was as if the heat existed in a different dimension from his body.

No, that wasn’t right. He’d instinctively known the heat wouldn’t hurt him, just as he knew the Something was dangerous.

“What was that?” Josh breathed.

“That’s what locked me in the room.” Cody’s voice shook. He aimed the flashlight at the crater where the Something had slammed into the wall. The crushed plaster and splintered shiplap was about a yard wide and oblong in shape. The monster must’ve been huge.

Not that Cody needed any more evidence. The bone-rattling thuds had told him enough of the monster’s size.

“No, I mean the sonic boom thing you did. You have superpowers! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Cody stared at his hands again. They looked the same as they always did, and he couldn’t wrap his head around it. Something visceral had changed within him. He could feel it in the way the cooling lump pulsed in his chest. If he escaped this house, he wouldn’t emerge the same Cody.


“I’ve never done that before.”

“Can you do it again?”

He swallowed. Cody didn’t know, but that thought seemed too dangerous to voice. The Something might understand English. Josh seemed to understand, because he didn’t ask again. After a brief, whispered discussion, they decided to look for another exit. Cody thought he remembered one in the kitchen. Even if he was wrong, maybe they could find something to break down the front door.

Cody kept a hand on the bumpy wallpaper as he led the way. He kept his footsteps as quiet as he could. Josh hovered inches from Cody’s back. Personal space seemed ridiculous at a time like this.

Josh paused to inspect a window in the living room. Like the one upstairs, it was sealed shut. Josh raised his flashlight. With all his strength, he slammed it into the pane. He hit it again, and again, until his flashlight flickered and died. He looked like he was going to keep at it with his makeshift club, but Cody grabbed his shoulder.

“I tried that upstairs. I think it’s bulletproof or something.”

“Why would an old house have bulletproof windows?”

Cody felt his eyes drawn to the easy chair, or rather the trapdoor hiding beneath it. There was a lot about this place that didn’t make sense.

Hidden in the shadows cast by the functioning flashlight, Cody shrugged. “Maybe this was a mobster’s house. Maybe they used the monster to kill people.” It was easier talking about the Something in this unceremonious, nonchalant way. Cody didn’t actually believe mobsters were involved, but the possibility turned the unstoppable force of nature into a mere tool.

“That’s crazy.” Josh clicked the button on his flashlight until it became obvious it wasn’t going to turn back on. “Maybe the mobster killed a lotta people, and then one of the ghosts ate all the other ghosts, so now it has extra powers.”

Cody didn’t that was any more likely than his theory, but he didn’t want to waste time talking about it. He moved off into the direction of the kitchen. As he had the only working flashlight, Josh had to follow.

He drew up short when he rounded the corner. The space beneath the kitchen door glowed with an infernal, reddish light. Cody hesitated. It couldn’t mean anything good, but he didn’t remember any other exits. He glanced at Josh, but couldn’t decipher his expression beneath the shadows. Cody tensed and counted silently.

One. Two. Three.

He shoved open the door. An inferno billowed within. Popping and groaning, it licked up the wallpaper and danced across the floor. The heat alone was enough to melt Cody’s eyebrows.

“We have to put it out before it spreads.” Josh shouted.

Cody stared at the kitchen in horror. He didn’t think ‘Stop, Drop, and Roll’ would help. As if sensing their fear, the flames seemed to stand a foot taller.

“Water. We need water.” Josh babbled.

Where were they going to get water? Or flour, wasn’t that used for kitchen fires?

He turned to run, yanking Josh bodily along. They took one step, two, and then Josh dropped to the ground screaming. “Mom! Mom!”

Cody dropped to his knees, searching for a cause to Josh’s panic. His mom died years ago in a boating accident. Josh had been with her when the storm tossed her out into the black sea. He talked about it once, after Cody followed him to the graveyard on the anniversary.

“It’s okay. C’mon, Josh. It’s okay.” Cody’s words fell on deaf ears. Josh twitched and moaned on the floor. Cody seized the fabric on his shirt to drag him away from the fire. His vision vanished. The roaring fire and ragged breathing disappeared, replaced with a silence that pressed down on his head like a vice.

Cody spun around. He was in a deep pit. His head whipped around, but Josh was nowhere to be seen. The cold, damp dirt and slimey leaves slid under Cody’s movements. He caught himself on the side of the pit, but cringed away from the sticky feeling of rot.

“Josh!” Cody screamed. He should feel relieved to be out of the farmhouse, but all he could feel was dread. Had the Something dragged him into this pit? Had Josh escaped? Josh would never have left him, not in a million years.

Desperate, he cried out again. “Josh!”

A rustling answered. Cody craned his neck. The sound grew nearer. He began to make out an odd clicking. It didn’t sound like Josh, or anything human.

Cody frantically looked for an unnoticed escape opportunity. The sides of the pit were slick, and the muddy walls provided no purchase. He dug his fingers into the dirt, but it squelched between his fingers. There was no way out.

He patted down his pockets, searching for the flashlight or anything he could use as a weapon. Fear welled up inside him, held back by a flimsy dam of rationality. The acrid taste of bile flooded his mouth. His heart pounded so hard, he feared it would rupture.

A spider crawled to the edge. It was the size of a schnauzer, and its legs looked dagger sharp. It’s eight red eyes stared at Cody with an excited, hungry gleam. The spider’s mandibles clicked. Ludicrously, it sounded delighted.

Terror paralyzed Cody. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t scream. Distantly, he felt his knees shaking. This was the Something that had stalked the farmhouse. He almost wished it’d stayed invisible.

“Spiders don’t notice people.” Cody repeated Mom’s words to himself. “I’m too big to eat, so it doesn’t notice me.”

The spider slowly stalked down the side. It paused within leaping distance.

“I’m too big. I’m too big.” The words rushed out of him in an intelligible squeak.

The hard lump smoldered in his chest. Cody concentrated on it, praying it would ignite his superpower like it had in the foyer. The heat flickered, then began to fade. As Cody stared at the bloody, glinting eyes, a chill swept through his body. The hypnotic eyes sucked all energy from his skeleton. He labored for breath, but in seconds he felt too drained to gasp.

Clicking mandibles drew his eyes away from the eight-legged assassin. His legs went boneless. Thousands of smaller spiders waited at the edge. The moment his knees hit the mud, they descended. They poured over the edge like an invading army. Cody tried to regain his feet, but his muscles were jelly. They jumped onto his face. His arms frantically swatted them away, but there were too many. They poured into his throat and down his nose. The giant spider’s eyes stayed fixed on Cody.

Cody screamed as the spiders ate him alive. The sound never left his throat.


Cody opened his eyes. The paneled ceiling of the farmhouse seemed offensive in its banality. Darkness intruded. With monumental effort, he forced his eyelids open once more. He couldn’t move, or maybe he was just too afraid to try.

People in beekeeper suits moved in and out of his vision. No. Not beekeepers. Scientists? Doctors? Their white jumpsuits and clear plastic vizors made him think of astronauts.

“Do you want us to send this one to Autopsy, sir?” A female voice asked out of sight. Cody shifted his head minutely, trying to locate her. The trapdoor he’d found eons ago was open. Through the opening, Cody glimpsed a sliver of hospital-white walls.

“Why waste the funding? We know how he died. The mare scared him to death. Let his family have the body, at least. Their autopsy will only turn up a heart attack.” The man’s tone was curt and bland. He could’ve been talking about the weather.

Cody tried to muster the strength to speak. His thumb twitched.

The woman sighed. “I always feel so bad for the ones that don’t make it, but he didn’t have a teaspoon of magic in him.” She bent over Cody. “This one has a bright future ahead of him, at least. Sonic blasts, what a marvelous power.”

“If his mother signs over custody.”

“If?” A younger man scoffed. “They always do. She’ll just need some convincing. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about it while he’s awake.”

“You know, rookies usually don’t volunteer their two cents. The drugs we used to stabilize him keep him nice and pliable. He won’t remember anything. See?” The older man bent over Cody. He could see a pair of brassy spectacles and a graying mustache behind the vizor. “You and your friend wandered into a Salt-trap. We scared the shit out of you to kick-start your latent superpowers.”

“Jssshh” Cody slurred around his sluggish tongue.

“Yeah, Josh is dead. But, hey! You get to be a hero.” The man patted his shoulder. “Sleep tight. This is only a dream.”

Author: Louise Rainey

Louise Rainey is an author and apocalypse enthusiast. Although she primarily writes in the fantasy and science fiction genres, she’s been preparing for a myriad of untimely disasters since childhood. It’s possible she might’ve read a few too many survivalist books at an impressionable age. Regardless, she’s ready to rock n’ roll at the first sign of zombies, and a Yellowstone eruption will never take her by surprise. When she’s not preparing for the demise of her Texas home, she’s baking, listening to the same song on repeat, or playing with her gorgeous cat, Robin and her monster-dog Percy.

Louise has a degree in psychology and neuroscience and an unofficial doctorate in Random Ridiculous Knowledge. As a child, she won several writing contests, and she’s been trying to top her blue ribbon at the state fair ever since. Her latest published books include Benevolent Keepers and The Frog Eater.


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