THE SUPER-DUPER TOTAL DARE-OFF
Andy, Butch, Murph, T-Bone, Eddie and I walked up the railroad tracks for about three miles with our backpacks on our backs and our sleeping bags tied on. It took a lot of convincing on T-Bone's part for his grandpa to let him come with us for an overnight, but I guess I had hung around the U-Pump-It with T-Bone enough and his grandpa thought I was a funny kid, so he let him come along for the overnight. Of course T-Bone left out one small detail about the fact that the place we were going was haunted.
Frisky and Friskier were following along with all of us, but they kept stopping to smell the ground and wandering off. At one point they found a dead animal that got so smashed by the train you couldn't even tell what it had been. It smelled like crispy death on account of it being all crackly, and almost all of its fur was gone. Frisky started to roll on it, and I yelled him away. He looked kind of ashamed of himself, but Friskier looked jealous that she hadn't gotten a chance to roll on it. My stuffed squirrel Deeden was in my backpack just in case. You never know when a vampire squirrel might come in handy-especially when your dumb big brother, who is afraid of the squirrel, might try to pull a prank on you with his dumb, goony friends.
Before we headed out down the tracks, we stopped by Deak's house and explained to him what we had to do. Deak told us the overnight stay in the "haunted" schoolhouse would qualify us all for a bravery merit badge. I wasn't sure if there was such a thing as a bravery merit badge, but it sounded good. Deak suggested a different place we could earn our bravery merit badge though - a cool cave near tunnel number three where we could spend the night, but we had heard about the Indian legends from that cave. Andy and I had spent some time in the cave even, but never, ever at night. I wouldn't say it out loud, but I just wasn't that brave, and the truth is I don't think any of my friends were either. We'd rather take our chances in the haunted schoolhouse, I guess because we figured it was bigger and had more places to hide. A cave had only one way out, and if you are inside, you aren't getting out.
On our way out, Deak invited T-Bone to join our scout pack. He was really becoming one of us, and fast.
The truth was, we didn't really have a choice where to spend the night, since the dare-off was specific about the haunted schoolhouse. We had convinced our parents to let us sleep in the old abandoned schoolhouse up the railroad tracks three miles - it's next to the ditch where Mom and Dad go asparagus hunting - because it would let us earn our merit badges for bravery. What we didn't tell our parents was that it was probably one of the scariest places on earth, and the real reason we were doing our bravery badge time there was because we had lost the dare-off.
The schoolhouse is an old one-room schoolhouse that's half falling down. It was once called the Fossil Creek School. It was white at one time and, according to Deak, could be seen from all over town. In its day it had a school bell up in the belfry. Now there were just bats up there.
Today the old school is a weathered gray-looking wood, and seems to have shrunk into the little valley it was built in. It looks spooky even during the day. The bell has been gone for decades, but some people claim they can still hear it clanging in the middle of the night when the old witch-teacher is mad. It was a school where kids as young as kindergarteners spent time in the same room as kids who were old enough to be in high school; they all got taught there by the same teacher. The teacher lived upstairs when school was in session, and she is said to still haunt the schoolhouse. We would be staying in her old bedroom.
We were all a little bit afraid to go up there because of all the things we had heard about the schoolhouse. We had certainly explored it during the day enough, but never at night, which is when everyone says it's haunted all the time by an evil witch-teacher who taught there when people were still driving wagon trains. They say at night sometimes you can hear her yelling at the kids that were trapped in there with her during the famous blizzard. Trapped so long they all starved to death, and after that she panicked and hid the bodies between the walls of the old classroom. When the wind is just right you are supposed to be able to hear the ghost kids wailing and screaming and trying to escape.
The starving was supposed to have happened during a huge blizzard, in which the students would have just spent the night or nights in the schoolhouse until the weather cleared enough for people in their horse-drawn wagons to come pick them up. When it was clear enough, the townspeople came looking for their kids, and when the teacher confessed to what she had done, they hung her right in the middle of the schoolhouse.
Now legend has it that inside the schoolhouse at night, you can hear the loud scratching of her fingernails along the blackboard and see messages from beyond that show up mysteriously on the blackboard. The story also is that all of the people who were present at the teacher's hanging - there were seven in all - mysteriously died within a year and within a mile of the old schoolhouse. When one of them would die, the bell in the belfry would start ringing over and over by itself, one peal each for each of the kids that she had hidden between the walls.
Every Halloween, groups of people go to the haunted schoolhouse to see if they can make it a whole night inside without chickening out. My dad told me that every year, some of his college students try it, and they almost never spend the entire night.
The guys in The Secret Brotherhood of Boys and I have looked in the schoolhouse windows before, and the only thing we saw was the bird poop all over the wood floors and something written on the blackboard that gave me a chill.
BEWARE OF THE CHAIR THAT GOES FROM HERE TO THERE, IT IS BEING RIDDEN BY A WITCH-TEACHER, SO ENTER IF YOU DARE.
There was a chair, all broken up and sitting in the corner. It had been there all those years.
It was the chair they had made the witch-teacher stand on when they put a noose around her neck, then kicked it out from under her. I guess no one had ever dared move it out of the dunce's corner. When we saw that writing on the blackboard and the broken-down old chair we had run away so fast even T-Bone wouldn't have been able to keep up with us.
I was angry. Carl and his Goon Squad would probably be too chicken to stay in the schoolhouse or the cave for that matter, but they were making us do it. So I was really starting to focus on revenge. After all, we didn't really have the time for their dumb dare-off with all the Guinness record work we had to do.
Right across the highway, near the abandoned schoolhouse, there is a neighborhood where a bunch of really mean teenagers hang out by this big lake we like to go to sometimes because of the big raft in the middle and the two awesome rope swings that catapult you way out into the lake on a hot summer day. We've seen them go into the schoolhouse before, and I wondered if they would be stopping by as we tried to make it through the whole night.
Whenever the teenagers were near the schoolhouse, we would stay down in the ditch where there are tall weeds to hide beneath, watching them with our binoculars until they left. But if they came up this night, we would have nowhere to go because we would be trapped upstairs.
The teenagers think they are really tough, but they are kind of gross because sometimes the boys are over there with their dumb girlfriends acting all stupid and goofy, like older guys do when a girl is around. Sometimes we see them kiss. The boys all try to act really tough to impress the girls, but my mom says girls don't think that is so great and that it usually doesn't impress them at all. Girls don't seem to like the same stuff boys do, and they kind of get bossy when you call them "your girlfriend." Who wants that?
Mom told me about bossy girlfriends after Carl was bugging me really bad the night Denise ate dinner with our family a couple weeks ago in the backyard, and Denise started bossing Carl around and he seemed to listen to it. I didn't mind that because she was mostly telling him she thought I was cute and he ought to be nice to me. But she was pretty bossy.
Dad says Carl and Denise are an item, and that she has a ring in Carol's nose. I don't really know what that means, and I am not sure I want to know. How a girl could like my big brother is beyond me anyway; since he is hairy, scary and mean.
Carl got really mad at me because he said something about how ugly I was at dinner to Denise and she said, "I think he is a cutie!" (I know I already mentioned that, but I kind of like that part of the evening the most.) She even winked at me. Carl then just stamped on my foot under the table, and the bite of cheeseburger I was eating ejected from my mouth because of the pain in my foot. It isn't like I just go spitting cheeseburgers all the time, but Mom told me that it wasn't funny and to stop showing off.
I am not sure how spitting your cheeseburger across the table is showing off, but I wasn't going to argue and make a big scene because it might embarrass Denise and she seemed really nice. Still, I was glad it wasn't me she was bossing around.
The dare-off at the schoolhouse turned out to be different than what we expected, except that we didn't get much sleep and I felt really tired the next day.
I would admit that there were a few moments during the night that I felt pretty scared. Once I heard a strange scraping sound that made me sit right up, until I realized Murph was moving his foot in his sleep and it was his army boot that was scraping against the wall. But the things we feared most didn't happen, and we were talking about it as we walked down the railroad track back to our neighborhood.
"The teenagers never even showed up like you said they would, Butch," Tony murmured.
"Yeah, and we never even heard the screeching on the witch-teacher's chalkboard," T-Bone chimed in.
We all stopped over Tunnel Number Three, and started throwing the pink railroad rocks down into the water, competing to see who made the biggest splash and KEPLUNK. All of a sudden, thousands of small swallows flew off their mud nests which clung to the inside of the tunnel. They blackened the sky above us.
Murph said, "That's-because-it-was-a-weekend-night-and-even-ghost-teachers-take-the-night-off-on-weekends,-don't-cha-think?"
"We n-n-never heard the tr-trapped k-k-kids screaming. B-But I swear I heard a v-v-voice in the m-middle of the n-night and it was c-coming through the wall!"
That kind of made my skin crawl.
"Andy, you better close your mouth if you are going to watch those birds, or they'll poop right in your mouth," Eddie chuckled.
Andy was watching the birds darting about overhead, but now he slapped his hand over his mouth.
"The most amazing thing was that the Goon Squad never showed up like we thought they would to torment us!" Tony said, squinting really hard to see if there were any big carp milling around in Tunnel Number Three's waters.
We had a couple old fishing poles stashed nearby in the weeds in case we saw a big run of fish from the top of the tunnel.
"Yeah, wh-where were those w-w-wussies?" Andy stammered.
"Oh, like you would have done anything to them if they had come, Epstein. You are such a huge chicken!" Butch jeered.
"Shut up Butch!" I growled.
We went on like that for a long time, and then we were all lying in the steep embankment that led from the tracks down to the water just looking up at the clouds and calling out what we saw in them. Every so often someone recounted details of the night before, and then as usual everyone tried to top the other with details and, before you knew it, it sounded like it had actually been a pretty terrifying night.
"So, how does someone join your secret club anyway?" T-Bone asked.
"Just like you just did!" I exclaimed, and all at once everyone put their arms into the middle of a human circle and made hand pancakes.
"That's it? I'm in?" T-Bone asked excitedly.
"That's it. You are official," I said.
T-Bone was smiling from ear to ear.
"W-We have t-to go b-back on a weeknight and tr-try it again," Andy muttered.
"Why on the weeknight?" several of us asked at the same time.
"B-Because, g-ghost teachers m-must t-take weekends off like r-regular t-teachers!" Andy insisted.
We all just laughed nervously and changed the subject quickly.
Mom was on the back patio, soaking in one of the last days that would be warm enough to sit out there, when I walked in through the gate. She asked me the usual twenty questions about what happened, and I went through the whole experience with her again. I told her the whole story, and I told tell her how the dare-off worked, and I even mentioned how weird it was that the Goon Squad never even showed up to make sure we were sleeping in the haunted bedroom.
Mom explained that Carl and his gang were otherwise occupied on account of something else coming up, which involved Denise and two of her girl cousins who were visiting her family from San Francisco. Again, girls this and girls that... girls, girls, girls! Sheesh, I will never understand why they are such a big deal.
"As a matter of fact, they are in the living room right now." Mom nodded her head toward the house.
To avoid them, I climbed up the steel patio lattice, crossed the roof and snuck in through my bedroom window. I crept out into the hall and spied on them instead.
The Goon Squad and the girls were downstairs in our living room watching The Brady Bunch and you would think Denise's cousins were some kind of movie stars the way the older guys in the Goon Squad were acting. They laughed at everything the girls from California said, and acted really squirrel-y. Carl and Denise were sitting right next to each other on the couch.
I got bored listening to their dumb conversation after about two seconds, and army-crawled back to my own bedroom to make more plans about how we were all going to get into the Guinness book and how I was going to ask Andy not to mention us all going back to the abandoned schoolhouse without looking like a chicken. The thought of spending another night in there made my skin crawl.
I sat at my desk drawing and reading and thinking about the night before and how safe I felt in my room. I put my favorite Partridge Family album on my phonograph, and I pulled a space food stick out of my desk drawer, peeled the wrapper back and chewed on it.
I guess the schoolhouse wasn't so scary because there were five of us and we had locked ourselves in the small bedroom upstairs and pushed a huge branch from a tree that had crashed into the window some time back against the door, so there was no way anyone could get in the room we were in. But the more I thought about those kids being inside the walls, the more I realized no branch could keep them from floating out into the room where we were. Besides, when you are with four other guys, it's not like staying alone in a scary place.
I hope Andy's suggestion that we go back up there on a school night to test Murph's idea about the teacher would pass right on by. Maybe next summer, but as the President I would have to insist that we get back to the task of setting a world record. The truth I would never tell the guys was that I was C-H-I-C-K-E-N to go back and spend another night.
The day after the dare-off at the old schoolhouse, the guys and me went to our scout meeting and described to Deak our night of bravery. We all exaggerated a lot, and it seemed the more he laughed and the wider his eyes got the more we added to the story. We got merit badges, and Deak made us all hotdogs and macaroni and cheese for lunch. Then we had a contest to see who could fit the most marshmallows in his mouth. Andy won of course on account of having the biggest mouth I have ever seen.
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