There was something wrong with the dog.
I saw it when I left the store, nothing but a little thing. I would have stopped to give it some love, but I had to get back before Imogene started to worry.
Don’t go out tonight, boy. Death’s walkin’ on two legs.
But I had gone out, because I wanted some Slim Jims and peanuts and a Coke, and now I had a mutt following me home. It was a beagle with floppy ears and a tail that didn’t wag. Its eyes were too black, or maybe its teeth were too white.
I kept hold of my bag and walked faster, cutting in front of Lincoln Psychiatric Hospital. My breath made a fog. It was November, and already cold in Never, Kentucky. Above the trees on my left, the old asylum’s bell tower hid the stars. It was dark, but the moon was bright, and I knew the way.
Behind me, that dog let out a growl.
Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.
Somebody famous said that, not Imogene. Maybe it was a baseball player, but I couldn’t remember which one. Something flickered in the distance, winking between black pines and oaks.
I glanced toward the psychiatric hospital. The back of my neck got the shivers, and that idiot dog growled again.
The bell tower. Had the light come from way up at the top? I slowed down even though I knew I shouldn’t, and I got a new case of the shivers.
Nothing good ever came from the top of that bell tower, or any of the thin spots in that hospital. Imogene looked after the place as best she could, but sometimes—
“That’s about enough, Levi,” I told myself, mocking my grandmother’s voice. I shook my head to rattle out the stupid thoughts, and headed for home again.
Something at the top of that tower turned with me. It was watching me. It was staring at my back, just like the dog.
“Knock it off,” I muttered, and the mutt growled, and I walked so fast I was almost running.
My steps echoed on the path across the hospital grounds. Everything got quiet except the dog. It panted way too loud.
Light flashed across my face, and I stumbled, blinking until I could see again, and then I stopped. The dog had gotten itself in front of me, with its eyes wide and its mouth open and its tongue lolling to the ground. In that weird yellow light, its shadow rose across trees behind it.
The shadow was giant and black and wolf-sized.
It had red eyes.
Don’t go out tonight, boy. Death’s walkin’ on two legs.
“You got four legs,” I told the creepy dog. I barely heard myself for the blood hammering in my ears.
Leaves crunched nearby.
I whipped around and fixed on the sound, expecting to see—what? A real wolf? Some crazy freak with a flashlight? Lincoln Psychiatric didn’t have murderers and bad criminals now. At least I didn’t think they did.
Spots danced across my eyes as I squinted at the woods. Nothing. Just trees, and that stone bell tower standing watch over Never. A single yellow light flickered way up at the top, like somebody was swinging an old-timey lantern.
I’m not crazy. I puffed out more fog. I’d told myself that same thing a lot of times.
A twig snapped on my right, and I jumped again.
“It’s okay,” I told myself, watching the mist rise in front of my nose. The night smelled like wet leaves and grave dirt. “It’s just the dog.”
The beagle stood in that strange lantern-light from the bell tower. It was wagging its tail, but that didn’t seem friendly. Its shadow still had red eyes, and the shadow wasn’t wagging its tail.
I backed away from the dog.
It followed me, pace for pace. Its lips pulled back, showing fangs as big as my fingers. The wolf shadow rippled across the trees, huge and black and bristly, and the tower watched like a menace at the edge my thoughts. My breath came shorter and my blood pumped faster.
The hound opened its mouth and let out a howl so loud it rattled my skull. My feet tangled, and I fell backward against something warm and solid.
“Easy there,” said a voice deep enough to give me more shivers even as the man kept me from spilling ass-over-teakettle and set me on my feet again.
“The dog—” I started to say, but I stopped myself, because I had Imogene’s blood and she had raised me to use it since my parents died, and people didn’t always see what I saw. The man would think I was a runaway from the hospital. What we he doing here, anyway? Most people stayed off these paths.
“Sorry,” I said. “Just trying to get home.”
The man let me go, and then he laughed at me.
I didn’t like the sound.
The guy, he was tall and mostly bald, but muscled like a runner. His dark skin didn’t have any scars, and he was wearing suit pants and a nice shirt with a tie, but no jacket. Church clothes. He looked like a preacher.
“You’re one of them,” he said. “That’s too bad. But better now, before you’re old enough to make real trouble.”
The beagle snarled, and the man’s black eyes flicked to the mutt. He muttered something I couldn’t hear, but I felt the power in every word. The dog’s growl turned into a whine. It shrank away and faded into the trees like a ghost.
Cold truth settled on my skin, and my teeth started to chatter.
That dog hadn’t been growling at me. It had been growling at the preacher-man. From somewhere far away, thunder rumbled, and the light from the bell tower flashed before it went out.
Did lunatics in Lincoln Psychiatric still run the halls screaming when it stormed? I saw that on a news special one time. It used to be that way a hundred years ago. Imogene said so, and my grandmother always told the truth.
Run, her voice whispered in my brain, but it was too late.
The man moved when I did, grabbing me and yanking me backward. My bag went flying as I crashed to the hard-packed path, spilling peanuts and Slim Jims all over the ground. Agony tore up my right arm as my bone snapped at the elbow. It hurt so bad I went dizzy and dumb. My face bashed against pebbles, and one of my teeth broke.
My thoughts knotted up, and I yelled, but I didn’t hear anything. I used my good arm to push myself up, but the preacher-man threw smelly powder in my face.
It burned. I couldn’t breathe.
Was the preacher-man saying a prayer? Something about forgiveness and duties and saving souls. The guy was nuts.
It’s okay. I’m still breathing. I’m still alive.
I blinked up at the tall man, who had daggers in his big hands.
I’m still alive, I told myself again.
And then, I wasn’t.
“Teens looking for an eerie ghost story will want to check this one out.” School Library Journal
“Vaught’s gradual building of her ghost-busting team nicely juggles attitude and fright, and she excels at bringing each story to a conclusion while still driving to an overall climax. Readers not ready for full-on nightmares will eagerly check into this madhouse.” Booklist
“Vaught mines a wealth of local history and urban legends to achieve her scares . . . This is still a cinematic ghost story that requires only a dark and stormy night to complete the mood.” – BCCB