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TANYA MARTINEZ FOLDED her tawny arms and leaned back, resting her head against the wall. “Dare,” she said confidently. Her brown eyes were steady as she watched her three best friends huddle together to plan. “And make it a good one this time,” she added. “No more I dare you to eat a hot dog and junk like that.”
“Don’t look at me,” Rebecca Chin answered. She brushed her russet bangs off her forehead. “Maggie’s the one who threw that into the mix.”
Maggie Anderson rolled her eyes. “I took it back! It’s not like you actually had to do it.” She looked down and picked at the cuticles around her short, glitter-painted nails. “How was I supposed to know you were that serious about being a vegetarian?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe because I stopped eating animals when I was four?” Tanya shot back. “Honestly, Mags, we’ve been friends since preschool. Haven’t you been paying attention?”
Maggie flopped back onto her sleeping bag. “Not really,” she said, her voice playful. “I only pay attention to myself.” The others laughed, and Tanya tossed a pillow at Maggie, who squealed in protest.
Clio Carter-Peterson stood up and stretched, her slender brown arms reaching for the ceiling. “Okay, so no food-related dares allowed. That works for me. I’m not about to eat some vanilla-and-hot-sauce sundae again.”
“Hey!” Maggie protested. “That actually turned out pretty good!”
Clio laughed. “Says you.” Her hazel eyes sparkled beneath her thick lashes. “Oh. I just thought of a great idea for a dare!” She gestured to Rebecca and Maggie, and the three bent their heads together, their whispers just muffled enough that Tanya couldn’t quite make out the words.
Maggie let out a giggling shriek, and her peachy, freckled cheeks flushed pink with excitement. “There’s no way she’ll be able to do that!” she cried, and Rebecca shushed her.
“Which costume should we use?” Rebecca asked in a low voice, and Tanya’s ears perked up. The four girls were having a sleepover in Clio’s aunt’s costume and curio shop, Creature Features. The store was a crazy-quilt array of vintage wedding gowns, plastic vampire fangs, and everything in between. It also had the best collection of old books anywhere in their small town of Piper, Oregon, and it had been a favorite hangout spot for the girls since Clio’s aunt, Kawanna, had opened it earlier that year.
Tanya glanced outside the storefront window. It was well past dinnertime, but early enough that people were still strolling the narrow sidewalks of Coffin Street on their way back from the restaurants on Main Street. Were her friends going to dare her to put on a costume and walk around the block? Tanya hoped not. In her opinion, there were two kinds of people: those who were costume people, and those who were not. Tanya was firmly in the Not category. She found costumes infinitely stressful, and every time she had to wear one, she secretly worried she’d show up and discover that she was the only one dressed up. She hated being the center of attention, and her Halloween costumes were always minimal unless the other girls convinced her to be part of a group ensemble.
Maggie pulled a bright yellow bird suit off the rack. It was covered in fluffy feathers and had a hood with an orange beak. “What about this one?” she asked in a low voice.
Rebecca grinned and clapped her hands. “Perfect!” she whispered.
“I’ll get the tights,” Clio suggested, and Tanya could already feel her cheeks and ears going hot. Tights? This was going to be way more embarrassing than she thought.
Tanya stood up and ran her hand over her dark, pixie-cut hair. “All right, whatever you have planned, let’s just get this over with.”
“Not so fast,” a voice said. Kawanna Carter appeared in the doorway that led to her cozy little apartment in the back of the shop. She wore a faded pair of gray Juilliard sweatpants with a soft navy-blue T-shirt, and her long dreadlocks were pulled back in a loose ponytail at the nape of her neck. She held an enormous metal bowl of buttery popcorn in her arms. “I just finished getting the snacks together, and I can’t have all of you scampering off before you’ve even tasted them.” She placed the bowl on the glass counter, elbowing aside a plastic skull to make room. “How about you girls run to the kitchen and grab the other things? Clio, there’s hot cocoa on the stove. Can you pour it into mugs for all of us?”
The girls all jumped up to help and hurried into the dark hallway. Clio called to her aunt, “Why are all the lights off back here?”
“I’m conserving energy,” Kawanna called back. “Didn’t you hear that NPR story on polar bears this morning?”
Clio flipped the hallway light switch, but nothing happened. “Well, now the bulb isn’t even working.”
Tanya unhooked a key chain flashlight from her waistband and clicked it on. Clio turned around. “Where did that come from?”
“I always keep a little flashlight clipped to my waistband. You know that.”
“Yeah, but you’re in your pajamas,” Clio answered.
“Which is exactly when you need a flashlight,” Tanya said. “Don’t you ever read under the covers past your bedtime?”
“Whoa,” Clio said, her eyes widening. “I think I need a pajama flashlight now, too!”
Tanya led the way down the narrow hallway, the tiny pocket beam making a small circle of light on the floor in front of her. Their shadows slid along the walls, oozing and pooling into corners. “Ugh,” Maggie said. “This is bringing up way too many creepy memories.”
Tanya turned around and pointed the flashlight up under her chin, giving her face a spooky glow. “Don’t worry, Mags. A little darkness never hurt anybody.” She continued down the hallway and aimed the light into the pitch-black kitchen.
The beam lit on a hideous, snarling face with bulging, yellow eyes. The skin, scarred with gashes, sagged loosely, giving the impression that the creature’s whole head was slowly melting.
Three of the girls screamed and wheeled around. They ran back down the hallway, where a chuckling Kawanna stood waiting for them. Kawanna flipped the hall light back on, and her coppery cheeks split into a wide smile.
“I thought the hall light was broken,” Clio said accusingly.
Kawanna’s face was impish. “I just loosened the bulb a little bit so it wouldn’t turn on for you.”
Clio shook her head. “You are too much, Auntie!” Clio’s aunt had a puckish sense of humor, and she loved playing pranks on the girls. “You scared us half to death!”
“Not all of you,” Kawanna pointed out. She winked at Tanya, who was planted near the kitchen doorway with a satisfied smirk on her face. “What gave it away, Little Miss Scientist?” she asked Tanya.
“Well, you seemed way too eager to send us down a dark hallway, and NPR didn’t do any polar bear stories this morning. I knew you had to be up to something.” Tanya turned off her flashlight and clipped it back to her waistband. “Although, to be honest, we should all be working harder to conserve energy. It helps cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s one of the simplest ways we can fight climate change.”
Maggie ran over to Tanya and gently pushed past her into the kitchen. “Sounds like a great conversation for another time.” She flipped on the kitchen light switch. “Right now I want to see what Kawanna used to scare us. Plus, snacks!” Maggie tapped the stuffed rubber mask that Kawanna had hung from the ceiling fan with black thread and gave an approving nod. “Nice one,” she said. Then she spied the plate of chocolate cupcakes on the counter. “Ooh, Rebecca, did you make those?”
Rebecca scooped up the plate with one hand and a stack of napkins with the other. “Yup. They have a molten salted caramel center.”
“What? Those sound amazing!” Clio used an oven mitt to pour the pot of cocoa into five mugs, each with a different monster face. “Who wants the mummy?”
“I’ll take it,” Tanya said. “I love mummies.” Clio handed off the cocoa to Tanya and plunked a pile of marshmallows into a skull mug for Maggie.
“Ooh, marshmallows. You know me too well!” Maggie grabbed it along with a bowl of candy. “And, Tanya, you are one lovable weirdo. Seriously, who else in the world would say they love mummies?”
“I love mummies.” Clio handed out the last of the cocoa.
“Yeah, but that’s different,” Maggie said. “Your parents are history professors, so you kind of have to.”
“I don’t think it really works that way.” Rebecca took a sip from her werewolf mug. “My parents are both doctors, and I hate blood and guts and stuff.”
Maggie followed Rebecca out of the kitchen. “Well, you’re outnumbered. Tanya’s dad’s an engineer, and she’s all about STEM. And my mom’s a banker, and you know I love money.”
With her free arm, Tanya scooped up a bowl of potato chips and joined the snack caravan back to the shop, shutting the light off with her elbow. The rubber mask spun lazily at the end of the thread, and Tanya smiled and shook her head. Kawanna sure knew how to play a good prank.
Back in the shop, the girls piled paper plates high with snacks while Kawanna thumbed through her DVD collection of classic horror movies. “What are you girls in the mood for tonight?” she asked.
“Let’s pick something spooky enough that it’ll finally scare Tanya,” Maggie suggested. “Whenever the rest of us are jumping out of our skin, she takes notes in her little lab book. Like we have a run-in with a ghost or a ghoul or something, and instead of freaking out like a normal person, she’s all, ‘Oh, let’s get a closer look so we can study it.’”
“Hey, I get scared, too, you know,” Tanya said. “Like when we’re actually in danger. But as for all the supernatural stuff, I guess I just don’t get spooked that easily.”
Rebecca broke open her cupcake, revealing the gooey caramel inside. “I wish I could say that. I still cover my eyes when we watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
“I know one thing Tanya’s afraid of, which is why this is going to be the best dare ever,” Clio said. She held up the bird costume and a pair of orange-and-pink striped tights. “So get ready to put this on and do the Chicken Dance for Maggie’s YouTube channel!”
Tanya groaned and covered her face, but she laughed along with the others. Maggie’s channel had only nineteen subscribers, and most of them were members of Maggie’s own family. Tanya picked up the costume and trudged to the dressing room to change.
“So when do you start your new babysitting job?” Clio called through the curtain.
“Next week,” Tanya called back. She wrestled with the striped tights, which were somehow both too snug and too loose at the same time. “It’s for my neighbor, Mrs. Fogelman. My parents ran into her at the farmers market, and she mentioned she was looking for a sitter.”
“Isn’t she the old lady in the house with all the wild sculptures in the yard?” Rebecca asked. “She seems a little old to have kids.”
“Her great-niece is coming for a visit.” Tanya yanked on the bird costume and tried not to get whacked in the face by the fountain of tail feathers that sprung from the back. “She’s seven, and her name is Kira. Her mom’s in the hospital for a while, so she’s staying up here with her great-aunt until her mom gets better.”
“That’s a bummer,” Maggie said. “Where’s she from?”
“Los Angeles.” Tanya pulled the beaked hood over her head and shrugged. Not so bad. The bright yellow of the costume felt like a blinking neon sign that screamed Look at me!, but it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. She sucked in her cheeks for a moment, trying to make her lips look like a beak. Nope. It just looked like a typical fish face.
Maggie wailed, “Los Angeles? That poor girl is going to be so bored when she sees this tiny town!”
“Oh, don’t be so hard on Piper,” Kawanna chided playfully. “LA was a fun place to live, but once I came to this town, I never looked back. I love it here!”
Tanya pulled open the curtain and marched out of the dressing room. She flapped her strapped-on wings. “Well? How do I look?”
“OMG, it’s perfect!” Maggie shrieked.
Rebecca and Clio hooted. “Yes!” Clio hollered. “I am the dare master!”
Maggie dragged Tanya in front of a green sheet she had pinned up on one wall. “Now stand here in front of the green screen.”
“I’ve got the music all cued up,” Kawanna said.
Maggie aimed her phone’s camera at Tanya. “And three … two … one … action!” The music started and Tanya flapped, clapped, and wriggled, her cheeks flaming scarlet. Rebecca and Clio collapsed in a giggling heap on the floor, and Kawanna made a potato chip duck beak and danced along behind the counter.
The light from the shop windows spilled golden pools onto the sidewalk outside. It was past closing time for the restaurants now, and a few stragglers scurried past, slowing down for a curious glance before quickening their steps, eager to get home and escape the cold winter air.
And from the rooftop across the street, a great horned owl spread its wings and took flight, heading in the direction of the dark forest beyond the town’s borders.
Text copyright © 2020 by Katrina Knudson
Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Imprint