Steele House cast a dark shadow over the grass. Its broken windows were like deranged eyes, its sagging porch a weird, lopsided grin.
Maribeth stared at it, goose bumps crawling up her skin.
Don't be a baby, she told herself. It's just a house.
But it wasn't just a house. It was Steele House. Maribeth used to hold her breath whenever she had to walk past the vacant, overgrown yard. But she was nine now, and that was too old to be afraid of a dumb old house.
Still, she crept along the very edges of the grass, careful not to put even one toe under the shadow the house cast onto the lawn. Babyish or not, she thought if she stepped into the shadow, the house might see her. But this was the fastest way to get home, so she walked fast, not even looking at the house.
She was almost past the cellar, close to the place where Steele House's dead, yellow lawn turned into her house's nice, green lawn, when she heard a small, frightened mew.
Maribeth froze, a heavy feeling settling in her stomach. She looked at the cellar. That had sounded like a kitten.
This time the sound was louder and more desperate, as if the kitten had heard her walking past and was calling to her for help. Maribeth chewed on her lip, not sure what she should do. It sounded like the kitty was trapped.
Just a dumb old house, she told herself again. And then, quickly, before she got too scared, she grabbed for the cellar doors and, grunting, struggled to pull them open.
No kitten came bounding out. In fact, Maribeth couldn't see anything in the pitch-black darkness.
Mew, she heard once more. The sound echoed through the cellar.
Maribeth crouched down at the top of the stairs and reached her hand into the darkness. She was still wearing her church tights, and dirt smudged up the knees. Her voice shook a little as she called, "Here, kitty, kitty. I'm not going to hurt you."
She knew only part of the story of Steele House. Some people died in there a really long time ago, and now no one would live there. Her big brother Kyle and his friends sometimes rode their skateboards past the house and dared each other to throw rocks through the windows while shouting, Who's afraid of Steele House now, suckers? Only they didn't say suckers, they said a word Maribeth wasn't allowed to repeat. But they never went inside. Kyle was too chicken.
"Kitty?" Maribeth leaned as close to the doorframe as she could without going inside. She could see the top few steps into the cellar, but everything else was dark.
She braced herself. Just because Kyle was too chicken to go inside didn't mean she couldn't. She thought of how impressed he'd be when she told him what she did, and hurried down the stairs before she lost her nerve.
The air grew very still around her, as though the house was holding its breath.
Maribeth walked past a wall of shelves filled with old, green bottles, the labels long since worn away, and stopped in front of a wooden trunk with a broken lock. A doll sat on top of the trunk, slumped against the wall. Its eyes had been plucked out of its face, and there were gouges around the empty sockets.
Maribeth turned away from the doll, eyes straining against the darkness.
"Kitty?" she called. It smelled like wet jeans and the trailer park dogs and something gone rotten in the garbage, almost like something lived down here. Maribeth held her nose closed with two fingers. Her heart started beating faster.
Outside, the cellar door rattled in the wind.