Alice crept down the stairs, and poked her head through the railing’s posts.
“It’ll be fun, you’ll see,” whispered Jake, lacing his sneakers by the front door.
“I don’t know.” Bert sat on his haunches, twirling a flashlight in his hands.
Jake nudged Bert in the shoulder, nearly toppling him from his rickety perch. “You scared of a couple of girls?”
“No,” said Bert, his voice cracking as he caught his balance and rose.
“Shhh,” said Jake. He glanced furtively around the darkened foyer, while finishing his shoe’s last knot.
Skulking down the final steps, Alice winced as they creaked. The pair by the door froze, gazes turning to her like rabbits in headlights.
Recognition kindled in Jake’s eyes, and he bristled. “Alice. You should be in bed.”
“So should you,” she said. “Mom and Dad would be mad if they knew you were awake.”
Bert winced. “She’s right you know.”
Snorting, Jake stood. “So go to bed.”
“Not if you’re still going,” said Bert.
Alice slipped into her sneakers. “Where are we going?”
“We’re not going anywhere.” Jake shoved her toward the stairs. “You’re going back to bed.”
Planting her feet, Alice put her hands on her hips, and glared up at him. “I’m going to tell if you don’t let me go too.”
Jake squatted down, and met her eyes. “You’re not going to like it. It’s scary out there in the dark.”
“I’ll use a flashlight like Bert.”
Bert hid the tool behind his back, as Jake scowled. “And if you get lost?”
“I know my way around better than you do.”
Jake shook his head. “Fine, try and keep up.”
“Jake!” Bert moved to block the door, but Jake yanked him close and lowered his voice.
“She won’t be able to and she’ll have to come back, now come on, we’re already going to be late.” Jake dragged Bert through the door, and they leapt from the porch in a dead sprint.
Alice grabbed a second flashlight from the nearby emergency bin. Clicking the switch, she raced off after them, her beam swaying like a drunken firefly. Gravel turned to grass as she scampered across the driveway and moon-lit lawn, and into the woods surrounding their house. Branches stretched above her head, blocking out the night sky until only a patches remained visible.
“Wait up,” said Alice. She raced toward her brothers running steps dwindling further up ahead.
Their crunching strides stopped short a moment later, and Alice swung her beam forward. The light struck their backs, both arched like tense cats. “What is it?”
“Hush,” said Jake as she reached their side.
Gurgling and growling rumbled against the tree trunks, sprouting goose bumps on Alice’s skin under her pajama shirt and shorts. She pointed her flashlight at the noises, paralleling Bert’s, her beam wobbling like his. A shriek and skitter responded, and then rustling bound through the underbrush.
“Jake…,” whispered Alice.
Jake wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and squeezed her against his side, tucking her head into his arm pit. Her stomach started to tumble like clothes in the dryer as a rotten egg smell drifted through the darkness. Alice put her hand against her belly, and swallowed down a lump flavored with the peanut butter cookies they’d had for dessert.
“We should go home,” said Bert.
“It’s all right,” said Jake. “It’s probably deer or something. Whatever it is will move on, and we can keep going. They’ll be waiting.”
A howl shattered the night.
“They can wait all night for all I care,” said Bert.
Alice jumped as Bert found her hand, but then clutched tight.
“We’re going back.” Bert started walking backwards, his gaze locked on his flashlight and the eerie rustling in the gloom. Alice matched his stride, and kept her beam searching for the source of the sounds rippling through the shadows yet managing to remain unseen.
“Okay. Okay.” Jake pivoted but then halted with wide eyes.
Alice shone her light on her brother’s face. “Jake?”
With a sudden dash, the rustling encircled them, rushing through the undergrowth and in the branches overhead. Starlight flickered in and out as shadowed bodies took flight while gruff snorts disturbed twigs and fallen leaves, sending them tumbling against Alice’s bare legs.
Jake took the flashlight from her hand, and held the light high. “Get out of here! Go!” He scooped up a handful of dirt, pitching the loose stones into the black.
Adding in sweeps with his light, Bert joined in, shouting at the top of his lungs.
Alice glanced at them both, their faces contorted with fear and anger. Clenching her eyes shut, she added her high pitched roar to their defiant stand.
By the time she lost her voice, her throat burned, Jake and Bert panted at her side, and the woods around them remained, for the moment, quiet.
“Let’s go,” said Jake.
He took her hand, and Bert took the other so they formed a shaky chain. In a loping run, they made their way through the trees, until their house, with its wrap-around porch and shuttered windows, came into view. Jake didn’t stop, but led them straight through the front door. Bert fastened the chain while Jake bolted the lock.
Diving into the living room, they hunched by the windows, and stared into the night, flashlights close as they waited for dawn and whatever haunted the dark.