"Come on, I dare you."
"Why are you so determined to do it?"
"Why are you so afraid?"
"I'm not afraid. I just don't want to."
"Scaredy cat. My brother says the house is totally empty. Nothing to stop us nosing around."
"Nate's been inside?"
"All the time. Tells me it's become his place."
"What, to smoke? He can do that anywhere."
"No, girls. So it can't be scary, or girls wouldn't go in."
I had heard other things about that house on the other side of the wall, things that made me want to stay far away, even sitting on the wall was too close. But those things I had heard, well, they were sissy stories. Not stories I was supposed to believe in. Not real true facts.
"Nate says there's an attic filled with all these old clothes. For dress up, like costumes. We could get something good for Halloween."
"Like suits of armor, maybe. We could be knights and carry swords."
"You think there are suits of armor in the attic? I bet it's just an old wedding dress, or one of those big wool coats with lots of holes, and no buttons. No attic is really full of costumes like that."
"Well, it might be. And it's Halloween next week. Come on."
And he jumped over, just like that, and got a grass stain on his knee, so there was nothing else to do. I jumped over, and my stomach went from butterflies fluttering around to a great big rock weighted right under my belly button. The house didn't look that bad, not in the daylight. We had come to the wall right after school let out, and left our backpacks at the other side before climbing to the top. There was a long lawn between us and the front door, but no one had ever mown it, and the yellow grasses came up way past my knees. Brambles grew along the ground, and caught on shoelaces and stuck to our blue jeans, but now that we had jumped over, Andy was almost running towards the house.
"What's your hurry? My shoelace is caught."
"Oh, come on. Don't be such a slowpoke. It isn't haunted or anything."
It might as well have been haunted. The roof was about to fall in, and that winter, just after the Christmas blizzard, the roof did fall in. All of the upstairs windows had been cracked and broken, and the outside walls had spray paint on them. The front door was closed and all the downstairs windows had been covered with boards, but Andy had started walking in a circle around the house, staying close to the building. He was moving so fast that I struggled to keep up: overgrown rhododendron bushes grew right up alongside the house, and I tripped and stumbled over the roots.
"Where are you going?"
"There's a door, a real door, it's the easiest way in."
"Have you been in before?"
"Nah. But I asked Nate. He said everyone just came in through the kitchen."
"Who else is here? I thought we were just going to look around."
"He said it would be okay for us to show up, just as long as we didn't bother them. So we won't be alone in the haunted house you're so afraid of."
I was more afraid of Nate's friends that I was of being in the house alone, but it wasn't something to say out loud. Nate's friends were all in high school, some of them had even dropped out of school, and they told jokes I didn't get and used words I didn't know. They weren't really mean, the way tigers in a zoo aren't mean, but they still have sharp claws and big teeth and eat little kids. Andy found the back door, which maybe had once been boarded up and locked, but someone had taken a hammer or a crowbar or something and bashed it open. I could hear noises from inside, but not really who was talking or what they were saying. I closed the door behind me, and stood in the dark kitchen, looking around.
"That fireplace is big enough for us both to sit down in. It's big enough for a bicycle."
"Hey, look over here --" Andy pointed to the wall next to the fireplace, and was opening doors. Well, the doors were open, but he was putting his head inside the doors, like he was looking for something.
"This must go to the cellars. I won't make you go down there, rats as big as housecats with big yellow teeth and rabies. But I bet this is where we want to go."
Behind one of the doorways was a staircase. It was dark, there weren't any windows built in to let in light, and the stairs were close together, steep and rickety. Andy bounded up them, but I left the door at the bottom open so that I could see where I was going. It still felt like Andy had been here before; he didn't have to think or look at a map, and he almost ran up the stairs. I walked carefully up to the second floor, being careful not to slip, because there wasn't a railing to hold onto, only the wall, and I could barely see where I was going.
"Come on! The attics are way up on the top." His voice echoed in the stairwell, and I walked faster, getting used to those close-together stairs that my entire foot didn't even fit onto.
"I'm almost there. How far up is it? This house is huge!" and with that, I stumbled over the next turn in the staircase, and finally reached the top.
"Six stories, can you believe it? If I had a house this big, instead of a dining room, there'd be a great big pool on the first floor, with a diving board from the top of the staircase, and real fish swimming in it!"
"In this place, if there was a pool, it'd be filled with piranhas."
"Ha! Much better than goldfish."
We stood in the gloom of what were the attics, but the attics were bigger than my entire house, the attics were bigger than any house I had ever been in. In my house, the attic was one great big room that I got into by lowering a ladder on a string in the hallway ceiling, and inside was a lot of pink insulation and old picture frames and boxes filled with stuff, like my mom's old dresses from her crazy hippie days. This attic went on and on and on, with rooms and rooms full of things I didn't have names for.
"Hey! Andy! What's this called?" I held up something that looked like a popcorn popper on a long stick.
"I dunno. But get a load of this!" He had found some type of rug or coat, I couldn't tell. The attics were dark and dusty, and so as I walked across to him, my shins kept bumping into things, strollers, chairs.
"Whoa! Is that a real bear?"
"You bet it is. Head and everything. Didn't know they were this big, did you?" Andy put the bear head up on top of his head, and draped the front paws over his shoulders. The rest of the rug ran down his back and along the floor behind him.
"That is so cool. What else is there?" I found a zebra skin rug, without a head, just stripes, and a rug that might have been a leopard, it was all spotted, but there was a big hole right in the middle. "It's like something got hungry and ate the leopard, isn't it?"
"I don't think it would taste very good." Andy still had his bear rug draped like a cape, but I didn't want to wear any of the other animals. It was spooky, to think of being all wrapped up in dead skin.
"Hey! Where are those suits of armor? I want to try a helmet on for size."
"Look over here. I'll bet these are real swords, too." He held an African spear in each hand, and had the bear skin rug propped up on his head, and he looked just like an Indian medicine man from our social studies textbook. Beside him was a shiny pile of metal, and when I reached over to pick up a piece of chain mail, I could hear hoofbeats. Which was crazy, because we were inside an attic, six floors up, and there weren't any horses anywhere near us, but they were hoofbeats, and they were loud.
"Do you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Andy's voice had gotten deeper; he almost growled.
"It's like horses, like in John Wayne movies, like they're right here."
"Oh, they just use coconuts in those movies. You going to try on that armor?" His voice really was growly, and, when I looked over at him, he was crouched down, his front arms still holding the spears, and he was looking straight at me. His eyes were kind of yellow, and he didn't really look like Andy anymore.
"Andy? Are you okay? What's going on?" The hoofbeat noises were getting louder, and I jumped behind the pile that had the chainmail on top of it.
"What are you doing in my kingdom?" said the growly voice that wasn't Andy anymore.
"What do you mean?" I stammered. I wanted to turn and run down all those stairs, but he was between me and the door, and it was getting darker, too dark to be able to run with all the stuff in the attics in my way.
"I don't want to disturb you. I'm just looking."
"Why are you in my land?" And it wasn't Andy anymore, it was a bear, and it held two spears in its hands, and I didn't know what to say or do to get Andy back. I was too afraid to scream and my feet were glued where they were.