Ah, the old “spend-the-night-in-a-haunted-house” cliché.

Vanessa stared into the darkness from within the safe confines of Ethan’s truck. The house in the distance was a looming nightmare, a crowning achievement to whatever dark horror gods had actually crafted it from wood and mortar.

“This isn’t a good idea, Ethan,” she breathed out. “I don’t like this one bit. We don’t even have our phones…”

“I told you…” said her boyfriend. “They can track us that way.”

“Who?” asked Vanessa. “Who can track us?”

“The police,” shrugged Ethan. “The F.B.I.…Homeland Security for all I know. Anybody that wants us to get caught. This is breaking and entering.”

“We’re not stealing anything,” frowned Vanessa. “We’re just staying the night.”

“Doesn’t matter to the law,” replied Ethan. “They’ve criminalized everything anymore. You can get arrested for anything, and once you’re in the system, you’re screwed. I’m not risking it.”

Lights shone from behind them as another truck pulled up onto this out-of-the-way dirt road that led to this haunted piece of land. They were deep in the woods, way outside of town, and no one ever came here, not ever.

“They’re here,” said Ethan. “Carlos and Riley. They had to make a detour to pick up Lucas.”

Vanessa still didn’t like this. She did not like the idea of breaking the law, but one look at the weathered and broken-down two-story house in front of them, however, was a stronger reason for not spending the night, much stronger.

“This is like the beginning of every horror movie ever,” said Vanessa. “Are you sure nobody lives here?”

“In this dump?” asked Ethan. “You’ve got to be kidding me. This house has been abandoned for thirty years. There’s nobody here…Now quit whining, and let’s go be legends.”

He opened the driver’s-side door and exited the truck, so Vanessa had no choice but to follow.

She followed Ethan into Carlos’s truck lights as Carlos, Lucas, and Riley all exited Carlos’s vehicle.

The boys were all wearing their red letterman jackets with the gold lettering, but Riley had her hair dyed jet-black, and she was in her black miniskirt, black fishnet stockings, black booties, black T-shirt, and matching black leather jacket, something Vanessa would not wear in this chilly neck of the woods, or at any time, for that matter. The girl looked like a streetwalker.

Vanessa, herself, had on a simple pink jacket to match her tight pink pants, pink shirt, and vanilla-cream shoes. She liked the cuter colors, even if Riley did not.

Ethan and Carlos slapped hands together while Lucas took a long gulp from the beer in his left hand.

“Class of 2022, baby!” cried Carlos, a giant grin on his face. “We are gonna be legends!”

“Whooooo!” yelled Lucas as he crushed the empty beer can in his left hand and tossed the aluminum container off into the nearby brush.

Riley walked past Vanessa, a strange grin on her face, a fascination in her dark eyes that was visible even in the poor lighting of the two trucks parked near her. The young woman stared at the house in the distance, turned, and then shone Vanessa that weird grin, something Vanessa did not really wish to see…It was disturbing.

Vanessa was not really friends with Riley…She was not into that horror/Goth crowd or whatever it was that Riley liked. Riley was Carlos’s girlfriend, though Vanessa suspected the only thing a football jock had in common with a Goth girl was the sex. Those two were well known for doing the deed in public places; they’d just never been caught by the police.

“The Faerber House,” smiled Riley. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

At this distance, Vanessa could see the heavy coating of black eyeshadow and black lipstick on the weird Goth girl.

Riley was kind of repulsive when Vanessa gave a second thought about it. Watching her was like watching a cockroach crawl across a kitchen countertop.

“It’s gross,” frowned Vanessa. “It’s old and rundown and falling apart.”

“I know,” grinned Riley with wide eyes. “It’s awesome.”

“So what is this place?” asked Lucas.

Lucas was tall, blonde, and pretty hot, but everyone at school knew he only dated college girls. He used a fake ID to pretend to be a college student as he prowled the bars for one-night stands…It was common knowledge.

He walked up behind Riley and put his right arm around her shoulders.

Carlos immediately removed that right arm and pushed Lucas away, a grin on Carlos’s face to match his girlfriend’s.

“It’s the Faerber House, numnuts,” replied Carlos. “Just like she said.”

“So?” asked Lucas. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means nobody’s been here since the family that lived here disappeared thirty years ago,” said Ethan. “They just up and left all their stuff and disappeared. Mom, dad, little girl…No trace of ’em.”

Vanessa’s boyfriend walked up and wrapped his arm around her waist. She loved him, but he was obsessed with this stupid house, and that was not a good thing. Obsessions like these always ended badly, especially when the house in question looked like it had been birthed straight out of a child’s nightmare.

Nevertheless, they were here now, here at this “Faerber House,” so it was time to concentrate on that. There was always some kind of ghost story, murder story, or other kind of horror story that went with these places, and she wanted to hear it.

She didn’t get to ask the next question about it, though. Lucas beat her to that through sheer, straight-up denial.

“Nobody’s lived here for thirty years?” snorted Lucas. “That’s B.S. This place would have been sold by now.”

“Nope,” said Carlos. “The mom’s dad still owns the place and refuses to sell it. He’s in his eighties now, so this place will be up for grabs once he croaks. The old fart has no other living relatives. Owns the land around here, too.”

“And no one else has come out here?” asked Lucas. “I know when I’m standing in—”

“The disappearances,” interrupted Riley.

She still had that crazy grin on her face…Vanessa couldn’t stand it.

“What?” asked Lucas.

“The disappearances around town,” said Riley. “Over the last thirty years, fifteen people have gone missing. Four homeless people, six bikers, three travelers from out of town, one Jehovah’s Witness, and one census taker.”

“And?” asked Lucas.

“They all came to this house and camped out in it, genius,” said Ethan. “Everybody knows that.”

“B.S.,” said Lucas with a roll of his eyes.

“Nobody’s ever proven it, but we all know it,” said Carlos.

“That is why we are going to be the first to spend the night here and live to tell the tale,” said Ethan. “We are going to be legends.”

“How?” asked Lucas. “You told us to leave our phones at home. We’ve got no way of taking a video. There’s no way to collect any evidence.”

“Except from the house itself, stupid,” said Carlos. “We’ll just nab some pictures and stuff.”

Vanessa really didn’t like the idea of that. That was crossing a line.

“I thought you said we weren’t taking anything, Ethan,” she frowned. “That’s stealing.”

“We’re going to take it back after we show it off,” said Ethan with a slight smile. “A picture or something is all we need anyway. It’s not like we’re gonna steal jewels or anything. Besides, we’ll have time to do other things than just look around.”

“I hear you there,” smirked Lucas. “I don’t believe in any of this crap anyway. The only thing I believe in is beer and puss—”

Heeeey…” warned Vanessa. “Keep it clean.”

“The princess wants it clean,” scoffed Riley. “You’re not gonna like it much here, princess. Not at all…Not…at…all.”

Vanessa frowned. This little outing was proving to be problematic.

“You may not have a problem with handing yourself out,” said Vanessa, “but I like to have something called ‘dignity.’”

Riley held up the back of her right hand and wriggled her fingers in Vanessa’s face.

“Handy is right,” she scoffed again. “You’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?…Think you’re so perfect…Like you don’t give yourself a big fat O.”

“Enough, Riles,” warned Carlos.

“Yeah,” said Lucas. “No cat fights. It spoils the fun…Besides, lover boy wants some of this…”

He squeezed Riley’s bottom from behind, and the young lady jumped a little.

“Hey, hands off!” exclaimed Carlos.

He shoved the taller boy away from his girlfriend, but Lucas only grinned at him.

Carlos shook his head and then turned his attention back upon Riley.

“Come on, Riles,” said Carlos unhappily. “Stop arguing with Vanessa.”

He pushed her forward from behind, but she turned and gave him a disapproving stare.

“I’m not your property,” frowned the young Goth woman. “I can take care of myself.”

Carlos rolled his eyes and sighed.

“Let’s just get on with this,” he said firmly. “I want to see what’s inside this place anyway.”

“And I want to see an empty room,” smiled Riley. “You and me can have some alone time. This whole thing is turning me on…”

Vanessa tuned them out. How anything horror related could turn a person on was beyond her.

“Yeah, let’s get this over with,” said Lucas. “I’m only doing this because I owe Ethan. I’m making that clear right now…Although, I could go for a little alone time with Riles there…”

“Will you cut it out?” demanded Carlos. “Get your own girlfriend.”

“I’m game for a threesome,” grinned Riley as she looked from Carlos to Lucas and then back to Carlos. “How ’bout it?”

The two boys looked each other over and then shook their heads in a decisive and emphatic “no.”

Ethan gave a short chuckle, grinned, and motioned them all toward the abandoned manor in the distance.

“All right, let’s go!” he said in vocal excitement. “Come on, we’re only wasting time!”

There was nothing more to be said after that. They were doing this whether Vanessa liked it or not, and she most certainly did not like it.

The boys turned off the lights of their respective trucks, and then the five of them trudged toward the house in unison, marching forward like lambs to the slaughter. It was always this way in the movies, a group of teenagers spending the night in an abandoned house…Vanessa really, really did not like this.

Vanessa carried a flashlight with her, a big, black, metal thing Ethan had given her. All of them had one, handed out by Ethan due to his generosity, and that was good, because she seriously doubted this place had lighting or even electricity to run that lighting.

“The old ‘spend-a-night-in-the-haunted-house’ cliché,” said Lucas. “How original.”

“You’re a walking cliché,” scoffed Riley. “You may still be in high school, but you’re basically a blonde, college, frat-boy hornball. What would you know about original?”

“I’ll show you original when I spear you on the end of my—” began Lucas, but Vanessa would not let him finish.

“Hey, hey, hey!” she said quickly. “I may not get along with Riley, but don’t insult her like that.”

“Thanks, Mom,” said Riley. “I don’t need you to defend me.”

Vanessa shook her head in response to that obstinance. This was going to be a long night.

They walked up to the double wooden doors, taking one careful step at a time across the old rotting wooden porch.

As much as she hated to admit it, Vanessa realized that there was something to the old ‘spend-the-night-in-the-haunted-house’ cliché. This place gave her a bad vibe, and that’s all there was to it.

The doors were not locked.

Ethan pushed open the doors and stepped inside, so the others followed, but Vanessa was last…She really, really, really did not like this.

“We’ll leave the doors open just in case,” said Ethan quietly.

“You big coward,” said Riley.

“Nah, I’m with Ethan on this one,” said Lucas. “We’ll just leave the doors open for now. We can always close them later.”

“Whatever,” said Riley in a dry voice.

They shone their lights here and there in what was the living room of this large house. There was old furniture covered with dusty sheets, sheets that had once been white, and cobwebs here and there, but it was the dust, really, that was omnipresent, dust everywhere, dust like a fine layer of silt across the wooden floorboards.

“Talk about abandoned,” said Riley. “A whole house just thrown away…”

“Like your virginity,” chuckled Lucas.

“Har, har, buttfor,” replied Riley. “You’re definitely going to be the first to go. I’ve seen this movie.”

“So have I,” sneered Lucas. “The Goth girl always gets it, and she always gets it in the worst way.”

“And I’m sure you’d like to give it to me,” grinned Riley. “Right up the—”

“Will you two quit it?” asked Carlos. “It’s getting annoying…and creepy…And speaking of creepy, this place is giving me the creeps, straight up.”

“It’s just an abandoned house,” said Ethan. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

“It looks like no one has been in here in years,” said Vanessa.

“The last disappearance was a census taker in 2020,” said Riley.

“That doesn’t mean they disappeared here,” said Lucas. “They probably stumbled upon a drug deal or something.”

Now that was a disturbing thought.

“Do you think any drug dealers could be here?” asked Vanessa.

It was a valid concern. She did not want to be shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“No, stupid,” said Riley. “You just said yourself that no one’s been in here in years.”

Vanessa did not like to be insulted, but Riley’s comment was reassuring, nonetheless.

Vanessa shone her light along the upper railing of a set of stairs. Moving the beam of light revealed an open archway to a kitchen, and she could even see a large, once-white oven in the back.

“There’s the kitchen,” she said nervously. “There’s probably a study or guest bedroom over there, and there’s got to be a bathroom on this floor…”

“Good, because I need to go,” said Lucas.

“Go outside, you idiot,” said Riley. “The plumbing can’t possibly work in here.”

“Eh, you can leave a couple of floaters,” shrugged Lucas. “I don’t think anyone’s going to care.”

“Eww,” winced Vanessa.

“Yeah, that is gross,” said Riley. “I’d rather wipe my butt with leaves than go anywhere in here.”

“I’ll get some leaves for you if I get to watch you wipe that big butt,” grinned Lucas.

“Double eww,” winced Vanessa.

“Yeah, quit it, guys,” said Carlos in audible irritation. “You’re really grossing me out.”

“After all the things I’ve done to you?” asked Riley. “You’ve got to be joking…”

“Head in the game guys,” sighed Ethan. “Let’s focus on what we came for. Speaking of which, we should probably check upstairs…No, wait…Let’s check the other rooms first, then head upstairs.”

“Sounds good,” said Carlos.

“We could always split up,” said Lucas.

“No!” said everyone else at once.

They all shared a good laugh over that unified protest. Everyone knew you didn’t split up in a horror movie. It was just common sense.

“All right, all right,” said Lucas. “Let’s cover the first floor.”

They took a few minutes to explore. There were four other rooms on the first floor, those rooms consisting of a bathroom, a study with old, moldy books, a bedroom, and a room filled with what looked like exercise equipment. Any furniture was covered by dirty white sheets, but other than that, there was nothing special here.

“There are no pictures, no knickknacks, no nothin’,” said Carlos. “There’s nothing down here to take with us.”

“It’s upstairs then,” said Ethan. “On we go…”

All five of them trudged upstairs, and there was safety in numbers, but Vanessa was on guard anyway.

The upstairs led to a hallway with three doors on the north side of the house, and those doors led to a master bedroom, a child’s bedroom, and a bathroom, but it was the final door on the south side of the hallway that piqued their interest. That door was a solid red, a strange color considering the rest of the whites and browns that cloaked this abandoned house. It was also solitary, just a lone red door in the middle of the south side of this long hallway.

“Last door up here,” said Ethan quietly. “We’ve looked through the other rooms, so let’s check out this last one…Huh…Red door…That’s weird…”

“After you,” said Lucas.

Vanessa did not like the look of this door. It evoked an awful feeling, one of doom on a level she could not describe.

Ethan reached for the doorknob.

“Wait…” said Vanessa. “I have a really bad feeling about this.”

“Of course, you do, princess,” said Riley.

She pushed past Ethan and reached for the knob.

“Step aside,” she ordered.

She rattled the knob, but it would not turn.

“Locked,” she said unhappily. “And I really wanted to see what was in there, too…”

Vanessa turned to shine her light upon the top of the stairs. There, in the dim circle-glow of the flashlight, was a little face, a little female face with a pert nose, pixie ears, and big brown eyes staring at her, a dirty little hand on the stained white wall of the hallway, the face of a little girl no older than six staring straight at her.

Vanessa gave a short scream at the sudden scare; she couldn’t help it.

The little girl turned and ran down the stairs, her footsteps echoing behind her.

“What the…!” cried Carlos. “Is there someone here! Did you see something!”

“A…A…A little girl…” stammered Vanessa. “She ran down the stairs…”

“It must be a ghost!” said Riley in audible excitement. “We have to catch it!”

Riley bolted past her and took off down the stairs in hot pursuit.

“Whoa, wait, Riley!” yelled Carlos as he took off after his impetuous girlfriend.

Ethan and Lucas immediately followed, Vanessa right behind them, mainly because she did not want to get left behind. She did not want to be alone, not in here.

They hit the bottom of the stairs in a hushed heat, beams of light flashing back and forth. Riley’s beam rested upon the little girl, that little girl sitting on the dirty white tiles of the kitchen floor with her back to the oven.

“There she is!” said Riley in strange joy.

Vanessa took a moment to study this new intruder.

This little girl did indeed look to be about five or six, but her state was a rather sorry one. Her clothes were dirty rags, her face was smeared with grime, her hair was long, unkempt, and oily as if it had never been washed, and she was barefoot, the tops of her feet covered with that telltale dirt that only extended neglect could bring. Within her tiny hands, she clutched what was left of a doll, something that had lived long past its due date. Like her, the doll had seen better days.

“It is a little girl…” breathed Lucas.

“I don’t think she’s a ghost, Riley,” said Vanessa. “She must be lost…”

“Oh, yeah?” asked Riley. “Then you go up and touch her. Let’s watch your head roll across the floor when she murders the crap out of you.”

Vanessa could sense somehow that this little girl was not some phantasm or spirit. This little girl was clearly lost, scared, and probably starving.

“She obviously needs help,” said Vanessa. “I’m not just going to walk away.”

She slowly walked forward into the kitchen, her hands out as a gesture of peace, but considering this little girl was staring into the flashlights, Vanessa seriously doubted the poor thing could see what any of them were doing anyway.

“Vanessa, be careful…” warned Ethan.

Vanessa ignored him and inched closer to this little lost waif.

“It’s okay,” she said gently. “I won’t hurt you…”

“You shouldn’t be here,” said the little girl in a quiet voice.

“You shouldn’t be here, either,” replied Vanessa.

“I live here,” said the little girl.

“Who are you?” asked Vanessa.

“Ashley,” said the little girl. “That’s my name, but that doesn’t matter. You’re not supposed to be here. You need to leave now, before it’s too late.”

“Why would it be too late, Ashley?” asked Vanessa.

Now that she knew this lost little girl’s name, she was going to use it in order to maintain some calm. She did not want this small thing running off again.

“You have to leave now, before it gets here,” said Ashley. “Once it’s here, it won’t let you leave.”

“What won’t let us leave?” asked Vanessa.

“Knucklebones,” said Ashley.

There was a loud snort of laughter from behind her, and Vanessa turned to flash her light upon Lucas’s legs, and within that limelight, she could see Lucas’s grinning face.

“This is some horse crap!” chuckled Lucas. “You guys set this up to mess with me, didn’t you!”

“I didn’t set up anything,” said Ethan quickly. “Do you honestly think I’d come here by myself?”

“This is nonsense,” said Lucas.

“Well, I didn’t set up anything,” said Riley. “And I can tell when Carlos is lying, so—”

“You cannot,” said Carlos. “Don’t give me that.”

“Look, guys, this is stupid,” said Lucas. “Quit this crap.”

“I told you, I didn’t do anything,” denied Ethan.

Vanessa turned her light back upon the little girl, but she received a start, as the dirty little waif was standing right in front of her, right at her feet, staring up at her. The little girl picked up in song after that, a little skip-rope type rhyme with a very simple beat.

“Knucklebones, Knucklebones, nightmare fed…” sang Ashley. “Knucklebones, Knucklebones, under your bed…Knucklebones, Knucklebones, in your sleep…Knucklebones, Knucklebones, your soul to keep.”

“That’s not creepy at all,” said Vanessa in a hushed voice.

“Oh, this is too rich,” laughed Lucas. “You’ve got to be kidding me! This is hilarious!”

“Did you set this up, Ethan?” asked Riley. “This is really hokey. Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate it, but—”

“I didn’t set up anything!” barked Ethan. “I don’t know who this little girl is!”

This little girl, Ashley, jumped back at the tone of Ethan’s voice.

Vanessa turned to address her boyfriend’s overt frustration.

“Calm down,” she warned. “You’re scaring her.”

“I am calm,” said Ethan, but she could tell he wasn’t.

She turned her attention back upon Ashley, but the little girl had changed positions yet again. This time she was over by the east wall, right next to a dust-covered refrigerator.

“It’s coming,” said the little waif. “It’s coming, and it’s going to put you in the wall.”

“Put me in the wall?” asked Vanessa. “What do you mean by that, Ashley? What do you mean by ‘put me in the wall’?”

She did not get an answer, at least, not the one she was looking for. The double doors to the house slammed shut, the doors they had intentionally left open as a precaution, and the slamming of those doors caused Vanessa to turn her attention elsewhere yet again. She spun to shine her light upon the front doors, but Lucas was ahead of her in that respect.

“Hey!” yelled Lucas.

The brash young man ran to the front doors and desperately tried to open them, but they only rattled in place.

“What the…!” hissed Lucas. “The doors are locked! They can’t be locked from the inside! It’s like they’re jammed or something!”

Vanessa shone her light upon Ashley, but the little girl held a new surprise for her. The dirt-smeared waif had opened a panel in the wall next to the fridge, and she was half-in and half-out of a dark tunnel that led to who-knew-where.

“It’ll come from under my bed,” said Ashley. “You can’t get out now. It’ll take you one by one.”

“Hey, wait—” began Vanessa.

She darted to stop the little waif, but the dirt-smeared child disappeared into the wall as a panel slammed down to shut close from where Ashley had entered.

Vanessa darted forth to open the panel and follow, but there were no seams in the dirty white plaster, nothing to actually open up.

“Wh…What!” she breathed out, but her attention was distracted yet again.

“This isn’t funny, Ethan!” yelled Lucas from the living room. “Open the doors!”

“I’m not doing anything!” yelled Ethan in return. “I told you that!”

“Will you two stop!” cried Riley. “We can always smash a window to get out! Now quit fighting.”

“We’re not fighting!” yelled Lucas and Ethan at the same time.

Vanessa stood and walked back into the living room. She’d had enough of this. They needed to get out of here, and they needed to get out now. Something was definitely wrong, very wrong…She could feel it.

She walked back into the living room just as a quiet descended upon her classmates. Whatever it was they were going to do, she did not know, but she had a more pressing problem than the doors to this house being shut. Ashley had disappeared, and other than just outright vanishing into thin air, the little girl had fled in the creepiest way possible.

“She’s gone!” said Vanessa in a slightly-panicked voice.

She had not wanted to sound hysterical, but she was coming off that way, and she did not like it. She did not like anything about this.

“What?” asked Ethan.

“That little girl, Ashley, is gone!” repeated Vanessa. “She opened up a panel in the kitchen wall and disappeared through a tunnel or hole…”

“Ugh…She’s like that little girl from Aliens,” said Riley.

“Aliens? There are aliens now?” asked Vanessa.

“The movie, headcheese,” frowned Riley.

“What?” asked Vanessa in complete confusion. “Movie? What movie?”

She had no idea what this girl was talking about.

“Never mind,” said Riley in visible disgust.

Vanessa wanted to say something in return, something nasty, because Riley was really getting on her nerves, but Lucas prevented that from happening. The blond young man ripped a dusty white sheet from a small wooden stand, picked up the aging piece of furniture, and walked toward the nearest window, the one closest to the east wall.

“Hey, wait!” yelled Ethan, but Lucas ignored him.

The young man hauled back and tossed the piece of furniture at the window with all his might. The old wooden stand simply bounced off the glass and hit the floor with a loud clatter, breaking apart as it did. There wasn’t even a scratch on the glass for his efforts.

“Son of a…” hissed Lucas.

He took his heavy metal flashlight and swung full force with it at the window in question. The flashlight bounced off the glass like a rubber ball hitting the floor, and he was thrown backwards to land on his butt upon the dust-covered wood.

“What the…!” cried Lucas.

Vanessa’s heart raced out of control. She was beginning to feel like this was no trick, like this was no practical joke that Ethan or any of the others had set up beforehand.

“Sh…She said it was coming for us,” stammered Vanessa. “She said Knucklebones was coming for us, and that it wouldn’t let us leave. She said it would come out from under her bed.”

Lucas hopped to his feet and gave her a stare that would have peeled fresh paint.

“Oh, yeah?” he asked. “Well, I got something for him…I’m gonna go give it to him right now!”

He slammed his flashlight down into the palm of his left hand and pushed past all of them. He started up the stairs, and the others followed, so once again, Vanessa was forced to follow as well.

“I don’t know who you got to come here, Ethan,” warned Lucas, “but I’ve got something for him. This is on you.”

“I didn’t do anything, you idiot!” yelled Ethan. “I’ve got nothing to do with this! I told you that!”

“Oh, yeah?” asked Lucas. “Tell that to the dude whose skull I’m about to cave in.”

The young man tromped through the upstairs hallway to the child’s room, opened the bedroom door, and walked in without another word. Everyone else showed up at the entrance to the room, but Carlos stepped inside as well, Ethan right behind the other two boys.

Vanessa stood by Riley at the doorway as everyone shone their lights around the small room to look for anything, anything at all.

The child’s bedroom consisted of a small bed covered with a dirty white sheet, a small bookcase with time-ravaged children’s books lining it, a couple of dressers, some old toys scattered here and there, and what looked like a tall lamp covered by a ragged black sheet.

“Come on out, Knucklebones!” cried Lucas. “I got something for ya!”

“Be careful, Lucas!” warned Riley.

There was a tension in her voice, something a little more than passing concern. Vanessa wondered if there was something going on between the two teens, Lucas and Riley, but such a thought was ridiculous. Lucas only dated college girls.

Lucas stepped into the center of the room, visible anger upon his face, visible even through what little lighting they had.

The young man spun in a circle, flashing his light here and there, and then he knelt as he inspected the underneath of the small children’s bed. He stood and turned, backed up, and thumped his flashlight twice in the palm of his left hand.

Vanessa could not help but stare behind Lucas; she could not help but stare at the tall lamp covered by the ragged black sheet. She could not remember it being in here when they had inspected the room the first time.

“That wasn’t there before…” she whispered.

“What?” asked Riley. “What wasn’t there?”

But with nothing else to find in the room, Lucas turned his rage upon his friends.

“There’s nothing in here, Ethan!” he spat. “I’m tired of this game, and I want out of this hole! Now unlock the front doors so we can leave!”

“I told you already, you stupid…!” began Ethan, but his angry voice trailed off as he stared behind Lucas.

Vanessa watched in stationary horror as the so-called lamp in the ragged black sheet began to move behind Lucas, rising as if by magic…It was clearly no lamp at all.

Two long and spindly skeletal arms emerged from underneath the black sheet as the slender figure grew even taller, at least seven feet in height. Large skeletal hands opened up at the ends of those arms as those arms stretched forth, those arms opening wide to an uncanny five feet in length each, the span between the hands insane for any normal person. Two more boney arms appeared from underneath the black sheet, just under the first two, and two more large skeletal hands opened up to spread forth with equal menace. It was like watching a spider unfold its legs, though there were only four arms, not eight legs.

“Lucas!” screeched Riley.

Lucas turned and shouted as he swung his flashlight in self-defense.

The creature caught the heavy metal tube with its upper-right hand, and then it crushed that light, the plastic lens breaking, the metal tube folding in on itself as if the act of breaking a tactical flashlight were nothing. It dropped what was left of the crushed light to the floor, the pieces scattering across the dusty wood below.

Lucas tried to back away as all four skeletal arms grabbed him at once.

He was quickly bent backwards, the sound of his spine snapping in an echo around the small room, and then he was folded in half as he was picked up by massive strength a moment later, bloody spittle shooting from his lips in an arc.

The creature folded him like a dinner napkin after that, breaking his legs forward at the knees, breaking his arms backwards at the elbows, folding him into a square as Lucas’s dying, blood-choked shrieks faded out within seconds.

Vanessa screamed…They all did.

They all ran a moment later, all of them in unison, all down the stairs and to the front doors, the doors that were locked and would not budge.

Carlos ran to the front doors along with Ethan, and both of them struggled to turn the knobs and pull at the doors to open them.

“Help! Help!” cried Carlos.

The two boys banged on the doors over and over again until Ethan switched to a window and started hitting it with his flashlight, but nothing gave. They were trapped, and they knew it.

“There’s gotta be a way out of here!” cried Ethan.

“Lu…Lucas!” cried Riley. “It killed Lucas!”

Her voice was a high-pitched whine, and Vanessa could see tears in the Goth girl’s dark eyes. Vanessa had not expected this kind of reaction from Riley, as the young woman had always been brash and somewhat obnoxious about almost everything.

The young Goth woman ran past Vanessa and entered the kitchen. Vanessa followed her, because she was following Riley’s logic…There had to be a back door.

The dark-haired Goth girl ran to the singular back door at the south-west wall of the kitchen, that door a dirt-smeared gate of white wood with an old brass doorknob, but try as she might, this door would not budge, either.

“No, no, NO!” yelled Riley as she banged on the door with her flashlight. “Let me out!”

“There has to be another way out!” cried Vanessa. “Come on!”

She bolted from the kitchen to find the boys, but they were not difficult to locate. They were still banging on the front doors and the windows, but to no avail.

Right now, she needed to be the voice of reason, because everyone else was in a full panic.

“Everyone, stop!” yelled Vanessa. “There has to be another way out! There has to be a basement, or an attic, or something with a broken window! This house has been abandoned for years! There has to be something broken we can crawl through!”

“Yeah…Yeah, that’s a good idea,” huffed out Carlos.

“Are you nuts!” cried Ethan. “Do you really want to go into the basement of this place!…And we can’t reach the attic without going back upstairs!”

“We have to do something!” argued Carlos. “We can’t just wait around to get murdered by that thing!”

“She said it would pick us off one by one,” said Vanessa.

“It…It killed Lucas…” said Riley in a choked voice.

Vanessa turned to inspect the Goth girl, but Riley was a weeping mess, her eyeshadow running down her cheeks in black trails.

“Yeah, it got Lucas…” said Ethan in a haunted voice. “We’ll have to tell people after we get back to town, but first we have to…we have to get out of here.”

“It killed L…Lucas…” repeated Riley in a quickly-breaking voice.

She broke down into loud sobs as she wept into her hands.

Carlos walked over to her to put his arm around her shoulders, but the young woman threw off his hand in a strange fit.

“What?” asked Carlos. “Babe?”

“I loved him…” wept Riley.

“What?” asked Carlos in confusion, but that confusion quickly turned to rage.

“What!” yelled the boy again, only this time with angry force.

“We were seeing each other…” choked out Riley. “I was going to tell you…”

“What!” yelled Carlos a third time.

He pulled back his right hand and then backhanded her, the sound of the blow loud and audibly painful in the forced silence of this terrible place.

Riley shrieked as she fell to the floor, and Vanessa was at her side in a heartbeat, even as Ethan was pulling back an enraged Carlos.

“Chill, man!” yelled Ethan. “You can’t hit a girl!”

Carlos struggled against him as Ethan wrestled him from behind.

“She’s not a girl!” yelled Carlos. “She’s a whore!…Let me go! Get off me!”

Vanessa pulled Riley to her feet, and the young Goth woman held her right cheek where she had been struck.

Riley was still a weepy mess, but Vanessa gently lowered the girl’s hand from her cheek. Vanessa was not fond of Riley, but the sight of the quickly purpling bruise upon the young woman’s previously unblemished skin enraged Vanessa to no end, and that rage was directly squarely at Carlos.

“Don’t you ever hit her again!” she screeched.

Her outburst stunned the two remaining boys into silence. It was not like her to go full fury, not at all, so for her to show such primal emotion was both new and shocking.

A few seconds passed before Carlos brushed off Ethan, straightened his letter jacket, and walked away from them all toward the front doors.

“You don’t defend her,” he said in a low voice. “You don’t defend that no-good cheating whore.”

“You can’t hit her man,” said Ethan as he shook his head no. “I know she cheated on you, but you can’t hit her. It’s not cool.”

“She’s a WHORE!” shouted Carlos.

He stepped forward and pointed an accusing finger at Riley as the young woman choked out a sob and hid her bruised face within the confines of Vanessa’s pink jacket.

“She’s lucky I don’t kill her,” said Carlos. “I should just leave her for that thing upstairs.”

Riley choked out another sob, and Vanessa put her left arm around her for some small comfort.

Vanessa glared at Carlos, not that such a look would change anything. He was a jealous, abusive scumbag as far as she was concerned.

Her boyfriend, however, was the voice of reason this time.

“Don’t say that, man,” said Ethan. “You don’t want that…You know you don’t want that…All of us need to get out of here anyway. You’re just gonna have to shove this down deep and forget about it for now. We don’t have time for that. We gotta get outta here first.”

Carlos whined and palmed himself in the face a couple of times. Vanessa could see his eyes tearing up, and the young man drew in a choked sob at the same time.

“You gotta get it together,” said Ethan. “We have to get out of here. We’ll talk about this once we’re out of this place. At this point, I’m even willing to go down to the base—”

He never got to finish his sentence.

Ethan was standing by a small circular table, part of what had to be a spillover of dining room from the kitchen, a half-choke of rooms that had simply been merged for convenience, living room and dining room in one setting. The table in question was covered by a dust-caked white sheet, that sheet hanging down to the floor, and it was from beneath that sheet that two skeletal hands on long, boney arms reached forth and grabbed Ethan by his ankles.

Ethan was pulled to the floor, falling straight down, dropping like a weight as the creature attacked. He cried out as he was dragged underneath the table, but to Carlos’s credit, the jilted young man grabbed onto Ethan’s outstretched hands, though it did little good.

Vanessa shrieked along with Riley as Ethan screamed, the young man’s scream an audible wrack of terrible pain. Blood flew from Ethan’s lips in synchrony to the sounds of bones snapping, his body half-in and half-out from beneath the table sheet, and even though Carlos had ahold of his friend’s hands, and even though Carlos leaned back with all of his weight to pull, his sneakers on their heels, Ethan slipped from his grasp and disappeared beneath the table in one last, high-pitched, agonizing wail.

Carlos fell on his rump as Ethan was pulled from his grasp. The young man immediately hopped to his feet, swiveled, and gave the two girls a crazed, wide-eyed stare.

“GOOOOO!” he shouted.

Vanessa had to drag/pull Riley toward the kitchen. The weight of her own boyfriend’s sudden death had not dropped upon her, not yet, not like it had with Riley on the death of the girl’s lover, but it would, and she knew that. Right now, she had to get out of this house.

She pried open the basement door in the kitchen and shone a light down the rickety wooden stairs leading below. There had to be some way out of this house, either up or down, and she was going to find it.

But the only thing she found was grief, and she was crying by the time she landed feet first at the bottom of the stairs, even as she dragged Riley along with her. That grief had hit her sooner than later.

“It killed h…him…” she choked out.

Riley nodded in understanding. They at least had that in common.

The door to the basement slammed shut as Carlos leapt down after them.

“We gotta get outta here now!” he ordered, but truth be told, neither Vanessa nor Riley were in any shape to do anything, and Vanessa knew that.

“It killed Ethan…” she choked out. “It…It dragged him under the table…”

She sobbed into her hands as that emotion threatened to drown her, but she did not get to grieve for long.

Carlos pried her away from Riley and slapped Vanessa across the left cheek with his right hand. The blow stung, but Vanessa could do nothing but stare back at him in surprise.

“Snap out of it!” he commanded. “We don’t have time for this!”

“Leave her alone!” sobbed Riley. “Don’t hit her!”

Carlos released Vanessa and immediately grabbed the Goth girl by her right wrist with his left hand. He raised his right hand to strike her, and Riley immediately flinched, but the young man’s right hand never came down with that punishing force.

“AaaaAAAGH!” shouted Carlos. “You whore!…Oh, I should…I want to…Ugh…Get away from me…You’re not worth it…”

He shoved her away and shook his head in disgust.

“I don’t have time for this,” he said angrily. “I’ve gotta find a window or something. There’s got to be something we can squeeze through.”

He shone his flashlight around the basement, an active attempt to actually be helpful, so Vanessa wiped at her own tears and searched as well, shining her light here and there to look for any kind of a way out.

There was nothing down here but an old washer, an old dryer, and the rotting wood of an old workbench with some rusty tools on it. Other than that, this large cement block of a basement was bare, just a huge rectangle of old sewage smells and water stains.

Carlos walked forward and picked up a rusty machete from the workbench. He took a couple of swings with it, determined that the handle would not snap off, and continued to shine his light here and there.

This was a problem, of course. Vanessa did not want the young man armed. He was just as likely to kill them as that thing upstairs. She did not want her head hacked off in a jealous rage.

She picked up a rusty icepick and slipped it to Riley. The young Goth woman took the weathered tool and hid it behind her back.

Carlos stamped around in a circle, shining his light about him, but his frustration was visible even before it was audible.

“There’s nothing down here!” he yelled. “There’s no way out!”

Vanessa shone her light around the basement and realized he was right. There were no windows down here, just the ceiling, the floor, and solid concrete walls.

“I told you,” came Ashley’s voice from behind them.

All three of them turned and shone their lights on the dirt-smeared little girl.

“It won’t let you leave,” said Ashley.

“It’s the ghost…” said Riley in a low voice.

Vanessa stepped forward and grabbed the little waif by the shoulders. In spite of what Riley believed, Ashley was solid, corporeal, and she was warm to the touch. Vanessa could feel the little girl’s breath on her face as she knelt down before her.

“She’s not a ghost,” said Vanessa. “She’s just a scared little girl.”

“Oh, yeah?” asked Carlos. “Then what’s she doing here? How did she get down here?”

Vanessa ignored him for the moment. She shoved her grief down and concentrated on escape, escape for all of them, and Carlos’s hostility wasn’t helping. She needed to get out of here and tell someone about Ethan and Lucas. They deserved that much, but she needed some answers first, and she sensed that this lost little girl had those answers.

“How did you get here, Ashley?” she asked.

“I live here,” said Ashley.

“You live in this dump with that thing?” asked Riley in audible disbelief.

Vanessa did not know how this little girl could possibly live here, but she was distracted by the marks on Ashley’s arms. She pushed up the ragged right sleeve of the shirt Ashley wore, its colors long since faded, and she winced at the sight of old scars, scars that looked like cuts and burn marks.

“Who did this to you, Ashley?” asked Vanessa in angry disgust. “Who hurt you? Did Knucklebones do this to you?”

“Kind of,” said the little girl in a flat voice.

“Kind of?” asked Riley. “What the…? What in the hell does that mean?”

Vanessa continued to ask the important questions, because if Ashley actually did live in this terrible place, then the little waif had to know of a way out.

“Where are your parents?” asked Vanessa. “Do you know where your mommy and daddy are, Ashley?”

Ashley pointed up toward the ceiling with her right index finger.

“Knucklebones,” she replied.

Vanessa felt a chill seep straight down to her core. Whatever was going on here was beyond her, beyond all of them, but she was not giving up. There had to be a way out, and Ashley was the key to that escape…but Vanessa’s questioning was sidetracked by Riley.

“Three travelers disappeared,” said the young Goth woman in a haunted voice. “I don’t know the exact details, but a couple disappeared four years ago. They must have had a kid with them.”

“How old are you, Ashley?” asked Vanessa.

The little girl simply shrugged.

“She’s got to be five or six,” said Riley. “That means she was a toddler at the time…Then that means…”

“That means that thing has been taking care of her,” said Carlos in a panicked voice. “That’s what she is! She’s bait!”

“What?” asked Vanessa in confusion.

Carlos pointed the tip of his rusty machete at Ashley’s smudged face.

“She’s bait for that thing!” he accused. “She’ll lead it right to us!”

Vanessa glared at him in warning. The distraught young man was becoming crazier and crazier by the second.

“She’s not bait, you psycho!” she hissed. “She’s just a scared little girl!…I don’t know why that thing hasn’t killed her, but…look at what it’s done to her!”

She pulled up the rags of Ashley’s shirt and showed off the burn marks upon the girl’s pale, dirty belly.

“Then she’s its toy!” exclaimed Carlos. “That’s what she is! It just keeps her around to torture her…”

“Which is why we have to get her out of here!” yelled Vanessa. “We’re not sticking around long enough for that thing to come find us and kill us, and we’re sure as hell not leaving Ashley behind just to get tortured!”

Carlos stroked back his black hair with his left hand, his dark eyes wide as his mind visibly worked out some thought on the matter. He let forth a little whine as his eyes misted over with tears, a working of emotion that was visible even in the dark.

“I…I don’t…I don’t know what to do…” he said in a choked voice.

“We gotta get outta here,” said Riley in a wavering voice.

“Yeah…Yeah,” nodded Carlos. “That’s…That’s it…That’s what we gotta do…”

Vanessa turned her attention back upon the abandoned little girl.

“Listen, Ashley,” she said in a firm voice. “We have to get out of here. You have to know a way out.”

The little girl nodded once in understanding.

“Does that mean you know a way out?” asked Vanessa.

Ashley nodded once more, and Vanessa sighed in relief.

“Why haven’t you left then?” she asked. “Why didn’t you try to find help, Ashley?”

“Grownups are scary,” said the little girl in a flat voice. “Knucklebones puts them in the wall.”

“Puts them in the wall?” asked Riley. “What does that mean?”

“It means she’s a little psycho,” nodded Carlos. “We can’t count on her…but there has to be a way out. There’s gotta be. It’s got to be in the attic of this place. It’s gotta be…But first we gotta ditch this little creep. She’s bait for that thing…”

“We’re not leaving her,” warned Vanessa. “And you need to calm down. You’re not helping.”

“I need to calm down?” asked Carlos in disbelief. “I need to calm down! That thing is going to be here any second!”

“Stop it!” warned Vanessa again. “Stop it now, or I’ll…I’ll…!”

She stood up and moved Ashley behind her, and Carlos immediately brandished the machete, waving the rusty tool in her face.

You better stop!” he said angrily.

“Put the machete down,” said Vanessa in a wavering voice. “Put it down, or I’ll…I’ll kill you. I won’t let you hurt a little girl.”

In truth, she felt like peeing herself, but she held in her visible fear, though she was shaking inside.

Carlos cocked his head to one side and gave her a look of death. She could see a certain finality in his dark eyes, a cold fire burning within those orbs that was impossible to ignore.

“You’ll kill me, huh?” he said quietly. “You want me to put this down, huh?…Oh, I’ll put it down…”

He gave her a strange grin, an awful and tangible malice brimming beneath it, something that instantly froze her in place.

“In fact, I know just where to put it,” he said in a weird voice.

He lifted the rusty blade high as Vanessa’s eyes followed the makeshift weapon. The old tool was poised to come down and bury its rusted blade right in her forehead, right between her eyes, but she was frozen, petrified at that moment, her death imminent.

The blade began its descent, but it never reached its destination.

Carlos cried out as he dropped the rusty weapon he had been holding in his right hand, the machete clattering upon concrete as it hit the floor. He staggered backwards as he reached back and held his left side with his left hand, his eyes squeezed shut, his face wracked with sudden pain.

Riley stood there with her flashlight in her left hand, her right hand wrapped around the handle of the rusty icepick, the browned tip of it coated with fresh blood.

Carlos turned to look at her with hurt in his eyes, a deep hurt that was so tangible it could be felt from a distance.

“Baby…?” he asked.

He staggered backwards a couple of steps as Riley let out a low sob, her eyes welling up with tears once more.

“I’m sorry!” she whined.

Vanessa had no thoughts running through her head as she shone her flashlight upon the injured Carlos. This particular scenario had never once crossed her mind.

If Carlos was going to say anything more, he never got the chance to.

Two long and spindly skeletal arms reached forth from the dark behind him, those skeletal hands gripping him by the head, and two more long and spindly skeletal arms shot forth as well, those white fingerbones gripping him about the waist. He was bent backwards after that, his neck snapping along with his spine as his head was pushed down to touch the small of his own back.

The sound of Carlos being brutally murdered was like a loud snapping of twigs, or maybe small branches being broken in half, but whatever the case, that sound of breaking bones was enough to jolt Vanessa out of her fear-induced helplessness.

“NOOOO!” screamed Riley, and Vanessa’s body moved as if on command.

“RUN!” shouted Vanessa.

She turned to grab Ashley, but the little girl was already gone, already across the expanse of the empty basement. The orphan waif was half-in and half-out of the west wall, once again escaping through a square hole in the wall, a square hole in solid concrete, a square hole that Vanessa was certain had not been there before.

“This way,” mouthed the little girl, but whether she had mouthed it or spoken it, Vanessa could not tell, as Riley’s scream was still echoing in her ears.

Vanessa dragged Riley forward toward this new exit as more sounds of snapping bones echoed around this empty concrete basement. They practically fell over each other as they followed the little girl into the small, dark tunnel in the west wall, but follow they did, and without hesitation.

It was a tight fit for them, but Vanessa still had her light, and Riley still had hers, so they crawled in a straight line over dirty stone or concrete after the leading form of little Ashley, their lights bobbing here and there in this basement underdark.

Ashley traveled about thirty feet in a straight line through this underground tunnel, but Vanessa could tell that this so-called escape route only led to a blank black wall and nothing more.

“We’re trapped in here!” said Vanessa in a panic.

“No,” said Ashley.

The little orphan waif pressed against the flat black before her, and a panel slid open to reveal an intense light, a brightness so pervasive that Vanessa had to close her eyes for a second in order for them to adjust.

The little girl before her crawled through the opening and into the white area the opened panel had revealed. Vanessa quickly followed her, crawling out of the hole, only to stand in a large room of pristine white, bright round bulbs embedded in ivory plaster above them, those lights shining down upon this empty, blisteringly-white room.

Riley crawled out of the hole last and stood, her tear-strewn face a mask of surprise, her dark, weeping eyes wide from the shock of these new surroundings.

This new room was empty save for two very important features. The first feature was the red door in the center of the north wall, a red door identical to the red door Vanessa had seen upstairs, only in reverse, the doorknob on the right side of the door rather than the left.

“This must be the room with the red door…” she said in a hushed voice. “But that’s impossible!…We were in the basement, and the red door’s upstairs…”

The bright red of the door surrounded by the stark white of the rest of the room had distracted her, for she had not noticed the second feature of this room, that is…not until Riley let out a high-pitched whine of sheer emotional agony.

Vanessa turned to address the young Goth woman, but the second feature of the room thoroughly stole her attention away from Riley’s emotional outburst.

The walls were lined with faces, faces molded of plaster, each with the defined detail that only a master sculptor could bring.

Riley stood before one particular face embedded within the wall, the face of her now dead lover, Lucas. His particular molding was at Riley’s head height along the wall, a little over five feet up from the shiny, white-tiled floor, and that face held a permanent look of shock and pain, as if he were in a physical agony to match Riley’s emotional one.

“L…Lucas…” choked out the Goth girl.

There were eighteen faces in all, and there were fifteen strangers all in various facial expressions of shock, horror, and pain, those first fifteen faces strung out across the east and south walls, but the last three were on the west wall, and Vanessa knew them well.

Her tears flowed as she walked over next to Riley in order to study Ethan’s face. Her own dead boyfriend’s face was right next to Lucas’s, and the look on Ethan’s face, his mouth open, the lips curled back in a terrible scream…

“Ethan…” wept Vanessa.

Even Carlos was here, his face in the wall, though how that thing had put him in here so quickly, Vanessa could not fathom.

“This is where the grownups are kept,” said Ashley in a quiet voice.

“This is…” choked out Vanessa. “This is upstairs, Ashley. We were in the basement…All we did was crawl in a straight line…How did we get up here?”

She turned to stare down at the little girl, her mind unrealistically expecting some kind of intelligent answer, but the dirt-smudged orphan waif in rags simply shrugged her little shoulders in reply, a blank expression upon her dirty face.

Vanessa turned and studied the other faces permanently locked within the wall, but something rose to the surface of her mind, something that instantly bothered her.

“There are fifteen other people in here,” she said as she struggled to wipe her eyes free of tears. “Fifteen people have disappeared over the last thirty years…so…what happened to the original family? Where are they? There should be two more adults and a child…”

Both she and Riley turned at the same time to stare at Ashley. Vanessa figured the both of them were thinking the same thing, and that thought was highly unpleasant.

“How long have you been here, Ashley?” she asked.

The little girl shrugged again, the same blank expression upon her face as before.

“Where are your parents, Ashley?” asked Riley, and her voice was not kind.

Alarm bells rang in Vanessa’s head as the young Goth woman pushed past her to stand before the strange child of this abandoned manor. Vanessa could clearly see the bloody icepick hidden in Riley’s right hand, but she could not fathom why Riley would suddenly wish harm upon this helpless little girl.

Where are your parents, Ashley!” asked Riley once more, this time with an audible viciousness that was undeniable.

“Kn…Knucklebones,” stammered the little girl. “Knucklebones…”

“What are you doing?” demanded Vanessa as she stood between Riley and Ashley.

She was not about to let this little girl suffer one second more. Riley had suddenly gone off the deep end, and Vanessa would not allow her to hurt Ashley.

“Move out of the way, princess,” said Riley in a threatening tone. “This has to be done…”

“What has to be done?” asked Vanessa. “What are you talking about?”

“This thing is bait for that thing,” said Riley in rising anger. “Carlos was right…Don’t you get it?…She’s the little girl from the family that disappeared thirty years ago…She’s the little Faerber girl…She has to go. She has to die.”

Vanessa pushed Ashley backwards and toward the east wall. One glance backwards, however, revealed that there was no open panel, no open hole to escape through. There was only white plaster, seamless, no sign of any means of the passage or tunnel they had escaped through.

Nevertheless, Vanessa was not about to let Riley hurt Ashley.

“She’s just a little girl!” she exclaimed in her own rising anger. “Leave her alone!”

“She’s been here for thirty years, Vanessa,” warned Riley. “She’s never aged a day…She’s been here for thirty years, and she’s never aged a day…You know she wasn’t with one of those travelers from out of town…There would have been a record of a little girl missing along with them…I knew something was funny about that the moment I first suggested it…The only record of a missing little girl is the Faerber girl that disappeared thirty years ago.”

“Wha…What about Missy Carlyle?” stammered Vanessa. “She disappeared three years ago…”

“Her mom ran off with her because her dad won custody,” said Riley. “Everybody in town knows that.”

The young Goth woman’s voice was becoming more and more strained, more crazed.

“Now move out of the way,” warned Riley. “I mean it…This thing got Lucas killed, got Carlos killed…She even got your own boyfriend killed…She summoned it, you know. She summoned it with that rhyme of hers…

“Knucklebones, Knucklebones, nightmare fed…I remember the words…Knucklebones, Knucklebones, under your bed…That’s how it goes, doesn’t it?…Knucklebones, Knucklebones, in your sleep…Knucklebones, Knucklebones, your soul to keep…

“That’s what’s in the walls, Vanessa…It kills you, and then it traps your soul in the walls…She brought it to us…She did this…She killed Lucas…She killed Lucas, and now she has to die…Now…Now, move out of the way, or I’ll kill you too.”

“She can’t be that Faerber girl!” cried Vanessa. “The Faerbers probably moved away! They’d be in the wall otherwise!”

“They probably are in the wall,” said Riley in a deadly serious tone. “It’s possible not all of the vanished people ended up here…I’m telling you…she’s the Faerber girl…I know…I know it. I can feel it. There’s something wrong with her, princess…I can tell. We were in the basement, and now we’re up here…That’s not normal. She’s the Faerber girl, and she’s been here for thirty years. She hasn’t aged a day. She hasn’t aged a day, and that’s not normal.”

“Nothing about this is normal!” yelled Vanessa. “Can’t you see that? You can’t hurt her, Riley! She’s just a lost, starving little girl that’s been tortured…”

“She’s bait for that thing,” said Riley in a cold voice. “It’s just like Carlos said. She’s bait for that thing, and she got Lucas killed…Now move out of the way, Vanessa. It’s time to end this.”

“You can’t do thi…!” started Vanessa, but her voice trailed off as she watched the red door behind Riley open in a slow, silent, inward swing.

“I won’t say it again,” said Riley, her voice low and tinged with madness. “Move out of the way, Vanessa.”

“R…Riley…” stammered Vanessa.

The creature entered the room on gnarled, bony feet. Riley sensed its presence and turned, her face twisting in terror at the skull face looking down upon her.

Vanessa could clearly see its face now. This Knucklebones’ face was nothing more than a skull and two dull white orbs where its eyes should have been. She could see a reddish tongue in-between its grinning teeth, its jaws creaking open as its four arms spread forth from the black rags it wore as a sheet over its narrow, skeletal frame.

“No…No, wait…” said Riley in a high-pitched voice filled with terror.

This terrible thing gripped her around the waist and lifted her up into the air to bring her face to face with its own grinning skull. It opened its jaws and screeched, a loud, shrill, and piercing call that reverberated around the white room, temporarily deafening Vanessa by sheer magnitude of sound.

“W…Wait…I…I’m sorry,” choked out Riley.

The creature turned her over and laid her across its two lower arms while holding onto her with its upper-left hand. It raised its upper-right hand high into the air as if to spank her, and all the while, Riley begged for mercy.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” screeched the young Goth girl. “Please, please, STOP!”

This horrible wraith brought down its skeletal right hand, and the fingerbones plunged into Riley’s back, right through her black leather jacket, right in and through her black shirt.

Blood spurted up in a fountain from the horrible wound, spraying everywhere in a red stream. Riley’s body stiffened as her mouth dropped wide open in shock, her eyes rolling up into half-whites, her legs stiff and shaking from the vicious assault. The creature then gripped Riley’s spine right above her tailbone, and then it pulled up, ripping upwards with one horrible, hideous motion.

Vanessa nearly passed out at the sight of it, this bloodbath of carnage on formerly spotless white.

Riley’s entire skeleton was pulled forth from her flesh, that flesh dropping to the floor like a bloody, empty meat sack of skin, muscle, and tendons, her empty face folding in on itself and plopping backwards with no skull to give it shape, the eyes snapping off at the optical nerves to spill away from the bloody flesh shell. Multiple organs spilled from the female skeleton—intestines, stomach, liver, heart, lungs—to splatter across the bloody meat sack below.

This creature, Knucklebones, dropped the gore-soaked skeleton to the flesh pile below and held up a ball of blue light in its bloody upper-right hand. That strange, unearthly light flew from its skeletal fingers and embedded in the wall, right next to Carlos’s face.

Vanessa wept and let forth a whining sob as Riley’s face formed in the plaster of the wall, that face desperately trying to speak, but no words could be formed from its alabaster lips. Riley closed her eyes as black tears spilled down her stiffening cheeks, and then she was nothing more than a white plaster face with a trail of black under each closed eye.

Vanessa backed away toward the east wall as the creature stepped forward on long, boney legs. She put herself in-between Ashley and the terrible wraith…If she were going to die, she was going to make sure Ashley got away.

The creature bent down to look around and behind Vanessa, but she would not allow it a solid view of the little orphan waif.

“You can’t have her,” said Vanessa in a low voice.

She spread her arms wide as the creature tried again to peer around her in a futile attempt to look upon the little girl.

“You won’t hurt her anymore!” yelled Vanessa.

This creature, this “Knucklebones,” spread all four of its arms wide, leaned forward, unhinged its jaws, and let forth its unholy screech.

A terrible wind blew about Vanessa, her hair flying about her face, and she had to momentarily close her eyes from the gale force of it. She was going to die, and she knew that, but she was not going to die in vain.

“Run, Ashley!” yelled Vanessa. “I’ll protect you!”

The hideous shroud of bones before them stood up straight and tall as it prepared to strike, but its attack did not come, not yet.

Vanessa felt a tugging at her pink jacket, and she looked down with wide, panicked eyes into the dirt-smudged face of the hapless waif.

“You’ll protect me?” asked Ashley in a quiet, sad voice.

“Yes!” said Vanessa in a panicked rush. “Now get out of here! Go through that tunnel! I know you can open it somehow! Go through it and get out of this house! Run away from here! Run far, far away! Run as fast as you can!”

The little girl let go of her jacket and then turned toward the giant, skeletal creature threatening them.

Knucklebones lurched forward to grab Vanessa, but those terrible, boney hands never reached her.

“No,” said Ashley in a quiet voice.

The creature staggered backwards as if struck by an invisible blow, its grinning jaws opening slightly as if in surprise.

“No, Mommy,” said the little girl.

The horrible wraith in black rags screeched yet again as it staggered backwards a few steps more.

“No, Daddy,” said Ashley.

This terrible nightmare from the depths of insanity staggered backwards until it reached the west wall, the wall with all of Vanessa’s friends’ faces, the wall where those friends were trapped for all eternity as far as Vanessa understood.

Vanessa watched in both surprise and shock as little Ashley pointed one dirty finger at Knucklebones.

“You’re bad,” said the little girl. “You hurt me…You burned me, Mommy…You hit me, Daddy…You were supposed to protect me…but you didn’t…I don’t want you here anymore…Her name’s Vanessa, and she’s nice…She’ll protect me now.”

The creature laid flat against the wall, its four arms spread, its jaws wide open as it let forth one last piercing shriek.

“It’s time for you to go into the wall,” said Ashley.

Vanessa lips parted in a gasp as the creature melded into the wall, melding until its body disappeared into the plaster, melding until the black rags vanished into white, melding until there was only a plaster skull left, a plaster skull with white orbs for eyes.

Vanessa knelt down, grabbed Ashley by her little shoulders, and spun the little girl around.

“How did you do that, Ashley!” she asked. “How did you do that!”

“I don’t know,” shrugged the dirt-smudged waif.

“I…I…I don’t understand…” stammered Vanessa. “Was that thing your parents? Is that where your parents went?”

The little girl gave her a slow nod in reply.

“What happened to them?” asked Vanessa. “Why were they like that? How did they become Knucklebones?”

“They hurt me,” said Ashley in a quiet voice. “They were monsters…”

“Monsters?” asked Vanessa.

“They hurt me,” repeated Ashley. “They didn’t protect me, so I made sure they would protect me forever…”

Vanessa’s heart leapt into her throat. A terrible thought had come to her, something so awful she could not quite comprehend it, and yet comprehend it, she did.

“Did…Did you do that to them?” asked Vanessa in growing horror. “Did you make them into Knucklebones?”

“They hurt me,” repeated Ashley.

“But…But all those people in the walls…my friends…” said Vanessa as more tears came to her eyes. “Why?…Why would you do that?”

“Grownups are scary,” said the little girl. “They’re mean…Knucklebones made sure they couldn’t be mean…That’s why they’re here.”

“Oh, my God,” said Vanessa with wide, tear-filled eyes. “R…Riley was right…”

“You’re nice, and you’re pretty, like my dolly,” nodded Ashley.

Vanessa wept into her hands as she tried to make sense of it all, but it all felt so senseless now, so terribly meaningless.

She lowered her shaking hands and placed them upon Ashley’s little shoulders.

“Do you understand what you’ve done?” asked Vanessa. “Do you even understand what’s happened here!”

The little girl nodded and smiled.

“You’re going to protect me now,” she said firmly.

Vanessa felt a pain in her chest, and she clutched her pink shirt and jacket as she winced in sudden physical torment. She fell backwards onto her bottom as more pain washed over her, a torture that spread throughout all of her limbs as well.

“You’re nice, and you’re pretty,” repeated Ashley. “Just like my dolly.”

Vanessa cried out as pain wracked her entire body. She shivered and shook as a strange sensation ran through her, an unearthly feeling as if she were being overwhelmed by some otherworldly force.

“You’ll protect me now,” repeated Ashley. “That makes me happy.”

Vanessa stared down at the fingers of her left hand. The pain in those fingers was slowly going away, but now they felt stiff, and with good reason…They looked like plastic.

She raised both hands and let out a low whine as she gawped in wide-eyed horror at her new plastic hands. She reached up with those plastic fingers to feel her stiffening face, but her cheeks felt just as cold, hard, and lifeless as the rest of her.

“You’re so pretty,” smiled Ashley. “See?”

Vanessa looked up and saw her reflection in a large mirror on the south wall, a mirror in a pink wooden frame, a mirror that had not been there mere seconds ago.

She was a human-sized doll now, a mannequin with oversized eyes and red, red lips, her skin a shiny peach plastic, her joints stiff and difficult to move. She was terrifying in that uncanny-valley sense, something that would have scared her to no end if she had seen it in a movie.

“I’ll call you ‘Doll Face’,” said Ashley in a happy voice. “You can protect me now. You’re much prettier than Knucklebones, and I can comb your hair…That makes me happy.”

Vanessa tried to speak, but no sound escaped her plastic lips. She could only turn her head and move in a very stiff manner, and try as she might, she could not stand up.

Ashley stretched her little twig-like arms above her own head and yawned.

“I’m sleepy, Doll Face,” said the little girl. “Carry me to bed…You can sleep in my bed with me.”

Vanessa stood and was compelled to do as commanded. She could not fight this overwhelming feeling, could not fight the sheer force of will that worked against her own meager version of such.

She reached down, picked up Ashley with ease, and balanced the little girl on her left hip. She then exited the white room through the red door and carried the little girl to the child’s bedroom, her gait a stiff march, her plastic limbs brimming with a new, unnatural strength.

“You’ll protect me from now on,” smiled Ashley. “When more grownups come, you’ll put them in the wall now.”

Vanessa’s horror ballooned out of control as she laid her new charge down on the dirty white sheet of the child’s bed.

The weird, warped little girl stared up at her with a happy smile.

“I love you, Doll Face,” smiled Ashley. “But we have to make up a song for you now…The words come to me when I think about it, and I don’t know what they mean sometimes, but I’ll think about a song right now, ’cause you need one…Let’s see…How about…Oh, I know…How about…Doll Face, Doll Face, in the night…Doll Face, Doll Face, giggling fright…Doll Face, Doll Face, pay her toll…Doll Face, Doll Face, takes your soul…”

Vanessa now understood the true meaning of horror.


George was beginning to regret coming to this abandoned house, but he had Mickey, an idiot, true, but reliable, and he had Geena, his girlfriend, so it wasn’t like he was here alone.

They’d come here to nab some stuff and sell it, but the prospects of finding anything of worth in this dump were swiftly looking null.

“There’s nothing in here,” said Mickey.

George scanned the living room area with his flashlight one more time before waving the beam of light toward one of the side rooms.

“Check the other rooms like Geena, then,” he ordered. “There’s gotta be something of value in here. We can’t just keep stealing copper to make a few bucks. We need something more substantial.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Mickey. “Don’t I know it. I’d like an eight ball of meth.”

“That stuff eats your brain,” said George. “I just wanna do something nice for Geena…Take her to dinner and a show…That reminds me…Where is she? Her sweet butt has got to have found something by now.”

There was a clicking of high heels as their third companion walked out of the dark of one of the side rooms.

“Speak of the Devil,” said George in frustration. “Where in the hell have you…”

He shone his beam upon her, but his voice trailed off as he stared at his girlfriend and partner in crime. She stared back at him, but she had backed out of the room she had been in, her own light facing the wrong way, so it was impossible for her to be staring at him…except for the fact that her head was twisted all the way around on her neck.

She fell, quite dead, onto her back to land face first as two large plastic hands reached forth from the darkness to grip her ankles and pull her body back into that black void.

George sucked in his breath in horror as a large plastic face appeared out of the dark and into his beam of light, a moving mannequin of a young woman dressed all in pink, her face beset with large brown eyes and red, red lips, and then that terrifying face disappeared into the darkness of the other room, but not before sounding out a haunting girlish and bubbly laughter.

Knucklebones Copyright © 2022 Matthew L. Marlott

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