ONE NIGHT IN THE WOODS
ONE HAND ON THE WHEEL, one hand around Darlene’s shoulders, Tony pounded the gas pedal, and the van roared over the bumps and pits of the narrow dirt road. Leaning against the window on Darlene’s right, Sue gritted her teeth and absorbed every jolt and jerk in silence. Tony was driving too fast, trying to impress Darlene, and Sue had to fight down her fear.
The van was roaring through thick woods, and the overhanging trees blocked the evening light, making Sue feel as if the world had gone black-and-white.
In the backseat, Randy, Brian, and Cindy were singing a children’s song, “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.” Singing and laughing at the same time. Darlene shook her head. Sue covered her ears.
Sue was the shy one in the group of friends. She appeared on edge with them, as if she’d love to be somewhere else.
The van hit a big stone, and the six kids flew up from their seats, their heads thumping the ceiling. The wheel spun wildly in Tony’s hand. Sue and Cindy screamed as they veered toward the trees. Laughing, Tony swung the car back onto the road.
“Man, this van can really rock and roll,” Randy said from the backseat.
“Like really,” Tony said. He tightened his arm around Darlene, pulling her closer.
Sue gripped her door handle tightly. She frowned at Tony. It was obvious she wished Tony would stop trying to wow Darlene and drive a little slower. The sky had grown even darker.
Cindy sat between Brian and Randy in the back. She was sweet-looking, with wavy blond hair down to her shoulders. She wore a ruffled peasant blouse that showed plenty of skin. Randy had short blond hair and looked about twelve, even with the cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Darlene was smoking, too. She had a dark ponytail, her hair mostly hidden under a polka-dot bandanna. The bandanna flapped in the wind from Tony’s open window. Darlene always wore the same black leather jacket and black denim jeans. She liked to look tough.
Tony’s dark hair was ruffled by the wind as the van sped through the trees. He had a lean, serious face, but his eyes crinkled at the sides, as if he were always enjoying a private joke.
“How about some music?” Randy asked.
Tony uttered an annoyed sigh. “I already told you, the radio is busted. This is my cousin’s van and—”
That’s when the car hit something in the road and spun rapidly out of control. Jerked to one side, the six teens heard a hard thud and then the clang of metal against rock.
“Whoooaaaa!” Tony uttered a wide-eyed cry.
The car lurched forward, then shot back hard with a squeal.
Sue gazed out the window, her face revealing her fear. “Did we hit a deer?”
“Just a rock,” Tony said, and then added, “I think.”
The three in the backseat sat in stunned silence.
Tony tried to gun the engine. Nothing. He turned the key in the ignition, but the van refused to respond.
“Come on. Come on. Go!” It was easy to see that Tony was the most impatient of the group. No—impatient wasn’t the right word. He was hot-headed, ready to explode for any reason.
Several more tries to start the van. Sue shut her eyes. Darlene tapped the dashboard nervously.
“Go go go,” Randy urged the van from the backseat.
They were deep in the woods in the middle of nowhere. It was miles to the lake lodge where they were heading.
Tony let out an exasperated cry. He slammed the wheel with both hands. “I don’t believe this.”
He shoved open the driver’s door and jumped outside. Everyone started talking at once. The air in the van grew steamy and hot. They all piled out.
Tall trees rose up on both sides of the narrow dirt road.
Brian put a hand on Sue’s shoulder. “Hey, Sue, we’ll be okay.”
Sue forced a smile, but everyone could see her trembling.
“Nice night for a walk,” Darlene said, rolling her eyes. “I love walking miles and miles in a dark forest, don’t you?”
No one answered her.
Tony was peering under the hood. He slammed his fist on the fender and cursed. “Too dark. I can’t see a thing.”
“Since when do you know how to fix a car?” Randy said.
“Since when do I need your opinion?” Tony shot back. He bumped up against Randy, fists clenched.
Randy raised both hands in surrender and backed off.
The discussion of what to do didn’t take long. Stay overnight in the van? Or walk and try to find a house or cabin with someone who could help them start it up again? The unanimous decision was to look for help.
And so they left everything in the van and, huddling close together, started off along the path through the trees. The only sounds were the soft thuds of their shoes on the dirt and the endless shrill chirp of crickets all around.
“What kind of a nut would live in the middle of a forest?” Darlene complained. “We’ll be walking forever.”
“Unless we’re attacked by wolves,” Randy joked.
“Not funny, man.” Tony moved to confront Randy again. Randy raised his hands in surrender and backed off.
“There may be a bigger road or a highway up ahead,” Cindy said. She was the optimist in the group.
How long did they crunch through the trees? An hour? More? It was hard to keep track of the time. Tony kept his arm around Darlene as they led the way. Brian was big and brawny. He kept mopping sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand as he trudged along.
Cindy was the first to cry out. “Wow! Look.”
The house came into view, black against the charcoal sky, as if it had magically popped up from nowhere.
Sue gasped in surprise and squeezed Brian’s hand. The six friends stared at the house, rising like a dark fortress in front of them.
“Welcome to Dracula’s Castle,” Darlene murmured.
It did look more like a castle than a house. Dark towers rose up on both sides of a long sloping roof. Were those bats flapping in the evening sky, circling the twin towers?
They trotted toward the house eagerly, although it didn’t appear inviting. No lights. The windows were as dark as the night, and as the six teens drew nearer, they could see that bars covered every one.
“Looks like a prison,” Randy muttered.
“Who would live in a creepy place like this?” Darlene asked.
“A rich person,” Tony said. “A rich person who will help us get going again.”
“Maybe a rich person who doesn’t want any guests,” Brian said.
But pounding on the tall, wooden slab of a front door didn’t bring anyone to open it. Tony ran along the side of the house, peering into the barred windows. “I don’t think anyone is home,” he reported.
“Hey, look,” Darlene called to him. “The door…”
She pushed the thick door open. Everyone stepped up behind Darlene. She crept over the threshold. “Anyone home? Hey—anyone here?” She had a sharp, tough voice. She sounded hard, even when she was trying to be sweet.
A few seconds later, they stood in the front entryway. Sue fumbled on the wall, found a light switch, and clicked it. She uttered a cry of surprise as bright ceiling lights flashed on high above their heads.
“Nice!” Tony declared, gazing around. Beyond the hall stood a huge front room, filled with old-fashioned armchairs and couches.
Darlene shook her head. “Is this the Ritz? The guy who owns this place has got to be a millionaire!”
“Anyone here?” Randy shouted. His voice rang through the empty rooms.
They moved through the front room, into a large library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, through another hallway, into a long dining room, turning on lights as they went.
Cindy tossed back her blond hair and squinted down the length of the oak dining-room table. “This room … it’s bigger than the lunchroom at school,” she stammered. She slid out a heavy, tall-backed chair and sat down at the table. “Somebody serve me dinner. I’ll have pheasant under glass.”
Sue raised her eyes to the ceiling. She was surprised to see two old-fashioned-looking swords—like pirate swords—crisscrossed high above the table. They were suspended in the air on thin cords, halfway between the table and the high ceiling.
“Far out,” she murmured. “This is the strangest house. Why are those swords over the table?” She pulled out a chair and sat down next to Cindy.
Darlene and Tony lingered near the door. They wrapped their arms around each other. Tony pressed Darlene against the wall. Darlene held the back of Tony’s head with both hands and kissed him and kissed him, long wet kisses.
“Hey, break it up, sex maniacs,” Randy called to them. “Did you forget we’re not moving in here? We came to find help, remember?”
Tony edged Darlene out of his way and came storming toward Randy. “I’m tired of you being in my business,” he growled. “You’ve been on my back the whole trip.”
Randy didn’t retreat this time. “Man, I don’t know what your problem is. I was just saying—”
He didn’t get to finish. Tony took a swing at him.
Randy ducked and the punch sailed over his head. “Hey, cool it, man. We have to—”
The others cried out as Tony’s next punch caught Randy in the pit of his stomach. Brian dove forward to pull Tony back.
Randy folded up, grabbing his middle and groaning. He staggered back into the long serving cabinet. The impact of his body against the dark wood cabinet sent it thudding into the wall.
A shadow moved over the dining-room table. Overhead, the dangling swords started to swing. One of them slipped from its cord and sailed straight down.
Cindy opened her mouth in a shrill squeal. “Noooooo!”
The sword came slicing down.
They all heard a squisssh.
Cindy’s scream cut off with a gurgle.
“Oh my god. Oh my god!” Sue shrieked. The room rang with shrill cries of horror.
Eyes bulging, Cindy raised a bloody stump. Her hand had been cut off cleanly at the wrist. It sat in front of her on the tabletop, thumb and fingers outstretched. Like a small white crab.
Copyright © 2013 by R. L. Stine