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THE DEAD PLACE

Prologue

The shed was dark. She couldn’t see a foot beyond the door where she peered in, the murky shadows at the front giving way to deep black, hinting of strange things hidden in corners. It had an awful musty smell that reminded her of a dead mouse her father had trapped once under the sink.

“No,” she said, turning back to look at the others. “I don’t want to go in there.”

They were watching her with predatory smiles. “But you do want to join the club, right?”

She swallowed hard, shifting her backpack. She’d been so excited when she got the note, pausing near her locker between classes to pull the little square from its hiding place under her math book.

“Meet us this afternoon near the track.” She’d read the single sentence over and over again, amazed that they’d asked her, thrilled to be chosen.

She lingered when school ended, waiting for others to leave before slamming her locker and hurrying out the side door. The track was empty, but one of them was sitting in the bleachers, waiting. The other stood just beyond the fence.

The walk across the playing field beyond the track was so quiet that she could hear the crunch of grass underfoot. They hardly talked, smiling occasionally if she asked a question. In the silence she heard the slight, wheezy sound of her own breathing.

Beyond the playing field the grass came up higher, tickling the skin at their ankles. The shed came into view, standing alone in the shallow basin of land below a slight rise.

“Wouldn’t that make a great club house?” one of them said stopping in front of it. Gray clapboard with faded green asphalt shingles peeling off the roof, it had a double door held together by a wide chain and a heavy padlock. The lock hung open.

“Maybe,” she said, her voice betraying the doubt she didn’t feel free to express. The sun beat down on them. She could feel the heat underneath her uniform blouse, sweat trickling into the new space created by the small buds appearing on her chest that was swaddled in what her mother stupidly called a training bra.

“Why don’t you go inside and look it over?” they said, making it sound like a suggestion, though one hurried to unhitch the padlock and the other pulled the chain through the metal loops. The door squealed as it opened and she’d leaned cautiously inside.

“No,” she repeated. “It’s too dark.”

“That’s just because your eyes haven’t adjusted. Step all the way in or you won’t be able to really tell.”

She looked from one to the other, searching for some indication that they were joking. They stared back at her with those strange, fixed smiles. Like alligators, she thought, and wished she hadn’t come.

“Don’t you want to be part of the club?”

How many times had she wished to be popular like they were? Yes, she wanted to be part of the club. She wanted to sit at the good seats in the cafeteria. She wanted teachers to smile at her the way they smiled at them. She wanted girls to feel envy when she walked down the halls and for boys’ heads to turn on the streets.

She let her backpack slip from her shoulder and drop to the grass. The door creaked, swinging slightly on its rusting hinges. She looked at the gloom and thought of wolf spiders and bats. She swallowed hard.

“Go on,” one of them said. “Hurry up.”

She took a deep breath and stepped inside.

The sudden shove in her back knocked her forward and she fell hard, slamming her knees onto rough wood floor. The door banged shut, the entire shed shuddering with the impact.

Blackness engulfed her. She screamed, struggling to her feet and stumbled around, hands outstretched, trying to find the door. By the time she reached it they’d restrung the chain and fastened the lock.

 “Let me out! Please!” She pounded the door and it shook in its frame, but didn’t budge. Her begging and pleading went unanswered though she could hear their muffled voices outside.

“You stupid wannabe,” one of them called. “This will teach you to stop following us around.”

 Their laughter rang through her sobs as she lurched around in the blackness, slamming her shin against something hard, stabbing her hand on something sharp. Things clattered to the floor, smashing her foot, rolling around her. Something splashed her legs.

 The smoke surprised her, a gentle waft against her face. She coughed and shied away from it, nostrils quivering at the scent.

There was a cracking sound, like a tree branch breaking, and suddenly there were flames racing along the floorboards, tongues of orange licking at the juncture of old walls, climbing the leg of a rickety workbench, lapping at her feet.

Choking on the billowing smoke, tears streaming from her eyes, she tried to stamp out the flames and beat them back with her hands. A sweet smell, like meat on a grill. Her own flesh burning. A line of fire reached the roof, turning a rotting beam to ash, which fell like hot, black raindrops on her head and shoulders.

Above the angry hiss of the fire and her own cries she could still hear their laughter. She would hear that sound forever.