It all started the night Mrs. Winchester’s house was torpedoed by a falling star. Of all the houses in all the world, that star picked 222 Happleberry Lane right next to Ruby’s house. And as quick as a mean strike of lightning, Mrs. Winchester was gone. They found her bones as deep as twenty feet, scattered, broken, even melted into the blackened earth. Some of her bones were never found.
The stately Victorian house (which had just been named a “historical gem” by the Historical Society of Misty Crossing) was miraculously still standing. Barely. Its wide
wraparound porch was scorched around the edges. Dark smudges marked the planks, as if something very black and very big had been dragged across it. The wood pillars looked more like toothpicks, splintered and bent, not nearly strong enough to hold up the porch. And the third floor roof suffered a dozen canonball-sized holes, one had slammed through two floors and Mrs. Winchester’s bed. But the house still had its Historical Gem sign planted in the front yard right next to the Condemned sign.
As Ruby lay in her bed she thought about coincidences, mishaps, and mistakes. If only her mother hadn’t been visiting Mrs. Winchester that night. If only she’d stayed home to sew the green sequins on Ruby’s silk slippers. If only….
Those two words floated like dainty snowflakes too small to grab hold of before melting. And now unable to sleep, Ruby sank into her down pillow and stared at the flickering stars millions and millions of miles away in the black October sky. They were fixed, unmoving, like someone had fastened them with screws. None dangled, drooped, or swung. No tell-tale threat that one was about to fall. Suddenly, she hated those stars.
The grandfather clock downstairs tick tick ticked with its predictable rhythm, growing louder and louder the more Ruby thought and tossed and turned. She could hear her father’s soft crying floating down the hall. It had been three weeks since her mother had died and her father had closed himself off from the world. He was unshaven, pale, skinny, and even somewhat crazed. At first Ruby had wanted him to come out, to talk to her and tell her it was all going to be okay, but as the days passed and his eyes grew puffier and redder and his mind grew more lost and his heart more broken, Ruby secretly wanted him to stay behind the closed door.
The moonbeam grew brighter, like a flashlight shining on her pillow.
It was no good.
She rolled back the covers and slipped out of bed.
In the silvery moonlight, Ruby peered at the road outside. Tall Victorian houses lined both sides of Happleberry Lane. The black pointed roofs looked like crooked rows of giant witch hats. Ruby let her eyes follow the moon’s light back to Mrs. Winchester’s sad and lonely house. It looked pale, ghostly, almost see through. And then...
The sound sent shivers up Ruby’s spine, spreading like tiny fingers tickling her scalp.
There was something coming up the road. But from her vantage point, Ruby couldn’t quite see…
Taking two stairs at a time, she hurried into the living room and peered through the velvet drapes.
She’d been wrong. There wasn’t something coming up the road.
There were two somethings.
Two dark hooded figures drew closer. And closer. The figures’ arms hung so low that their knuckles nearly dragged on the pavement. Their heads lolled around like puppets and their hoods flopped back and forth but never enough that Ruby could see any faces hidden there. They staggered and limped like their legs were nothing but string.
Ruby ducked beneath the windowsill. Her eyes hovered over the edge. The dark figures were coming toward her. Closer and closer.
She held her breath.
They dragged themselves across Mrs. Winchester’s front yard.
The moon turned its face behind a veil of gray clouds.
The clock ticked. Ruby’s father whimpered.
She couldn’t tear her gaze away. She had to know what they were. She strained to see.
The somethings each dragged a big black bag behind them.
It sounded worse than rusty scissors on a chalkboard. One bag slammed into the Historical Gem sign, knocking it into the dead grass. A trail of bones tumbled out. Ruby’s gaze followed the dark things as they hobbled up the walkway.
Up the stairs.
Onto the porch.
Their black tattered robes dragged behind them like trails of smoke.
And then came the knock.