Tales from the Haunted Mansion Vol. 1: The Fearsome Foursome (9 page)

Instead of finding Chubs’s grave, she discovered an empty hole. Chubs—or whatever he’d become—had chewed his way out of the ground. For real.

Crack!
A twig snapped. Isn’t that always the way? Something was out there, spying on Willa from among the trees.

“Chubs?”

That was a funny thing to say, particularly since Chubs had never answered, even when he was alive. But it was just her way of letting him know that she was still Willa. That she meant him no harm. If only Chubs had been thinking the same. But zombie brains don’t work that way. They think about food, mostly. They’ll eat anyone.

Rrrrreeeeech!

It was that feral screech again—the one from her dream—except now she wished she was dreaming.

The hairs on Willa’s neck stood on end, and no, they weren’t blue, pink, purple, or green. They were dirty blond, if you must know. Dirty-blond indicators that she was being followed.

Willa tiptoed through the ravaged garden, careful not to run. She couldn’t afford to excite whatever was lurking beyond the trees…because when you run, certain animals think it’s playtime. And Willa had no intention of getting playful with a zombied-out guinea pig, even one that used to be Chubs.

She made it back to the tent, climbed inside, and zippered it closed. She was panting by then, expecting the worst as she steadied the lantern over the remaining sleeping bags, hoping not to find her BFFs in the same condition as her mom’s veggies. But all three girls appeared unharmed, asleep as Willa had left them…until she woke two of them up.

“Guys! Guys! We have a problem!”

Cassidy’s eyes opened first. She was always up for a good problem. Before she even heard what Willa had to say, she gave Tanisha a kick in the bottom. “Something’s up!” Tanisha sat up, groggy, hoping it was more s’mores. All she got was a frantic rant from Willa.

“It happened! It came true! We have to get out of here! My wish came true!”

Tanisha managed to speak. “What time is it?”

“It doesn’t matter! He’s back. Chubs is back!”

“What are you talking about?”

“My wish. It came true. Chubs came back from the dead!”

Tanisha and Cassidy stared at her, not uttering a word. And then, having decided it was another one of Willa’s patented scare routines, they both plopped onto their pillows. “Turn that light out when you’re done.”

Willa couldn’t believe it.
No way!
How could anyone fall asleep after what she’d just told them? And what about Kayla? She never even woke up! Meanwhile, there was a thing—a grotesque, drooling, ravenous, and all those other adjectives thing—just outside, searching for food.

Willa adjusted the lantern, making it daylight in the tent. Tanisha covered her eyes. “Go ’way!”

Willa didn’t know what to say or do to convince them.
Rrrrreeeeech!
A helping claw arrived in the form of a screech, clearly not human. Cassidy and Tanisha bolted up fast. “What was that?” Tanisha asked.

“I’m pretty sure…Chubs,” Willa said softly, her eyes starting to water. And since Willa wasn’t that good of an actress, Cassidy had begun to believe.

“You’re serious?”

“As serious as a heart attack. Which I’m about to have. Somebody wake up Kayla.”

Cassidy and Tanisha went to work on Kayla, rocking her back and forth. She was one tough specimen, could probably sleep through an earthquake. Or even the zombie-pet apocalypse. When yelling in Kayla’s ear didn’t work, Cassidy donated a face-f of mineral water. Kayla’s right eye opened halfway. “It raining in here?”

Willa explained: “It’s my fault. I wished my pets would be alive again.”

Cassidy felt betrayed. “I thought you wished for world peace?”

“I did. Out loud it’s what I always wish for. But in my head I’d already made my other wish. The real wish. And I think it came true, because Chubs is back. And there’s something else: I think he’s hungry. He gets real mean when he’s hungry!” She took a breath before adding, “He especially loves toes!”

Phew!
The girls shared a nervous chuckle over that one. They decided Willa was just up to her usual tricks. That is, until she extended her right foot and wiggled her toes. Why hadn’t they noticed before? Willa’s pinky toe was a gnarled stub, having been chewed to the bone.

The girls shrieked and backed away from Willa like she had the plague, scrunching their toes so the ravenous Chubs-thing wouldn’t get them.
And now the screaming starts! Oh, what sweet music.

Willa didn’t respond. Didn’t smile. There was no laughter, no high-fiving. And this wasn’t a special effect. Her pinky toe was, in fact, half missing for real—which explained her complete disinterest in the buy-one, get-one flip-flop sale a week earlier.
Rrrrreeeeech!
The unearthly screech returned. “It’s right outside!” Kayla yelled. “What do we do?”

The undead beast was—

“There!” Tanisha pointed. The canvas fluttered behind them. The girls crawled to the center of the tent, watching in terror as a gigantic shadow, ten times the size of the average guinea pig, circled from the yard. Someone yelled to turn out the light, and suddenly there was darkness, except for the beastly silhouette just outside the tent. Fingers pointed as the girls shrieked and the wind howled. It was pandemonium.

“It’s there! Over there!”

“No! Now it’s there!”

The thing was toying with them. Plotting its first meal. Now the girls were looking to Willa for solutions. It was her undead pet, after all. “What do we do?” Cassidy asked.

“Call the house!” cried Kayla.

Willa shook her head. Her dad took the phone off the hook on weekends; he liked to sleep in. “What about your brother?” suggested Cassidy.

“What’s he gonna do? Annoy it to death?” Again came the terrible sound, making their skin crawl. It was horrible enough to motivate Willa to text Billy, the lesser of two evils. But before she could press send, Tanisha was pointing again. “Oh my god, look!”

The oversize shape was lurking just beyond the canvas wall, and it was suddenly making a different sound. The worst sound imaginable. The thing was digging, tunneling a path
under
the wall so it could get inside.

The girls froze.
Ah, scare rule number one rears its disembodied head.
Willa dropped her phone.
Rule number two, right on cue.
Moving as a single unit, the girls shifted to the opposite side of the tent. Watching. Waiting for the ravenous thing to claw its way in so it could make a midnight snack of their pedicured tootsies.

Cassidy spoke the words the others were thinking. “Why? Why would you make such a stupid wish?”

Willa didn’t have to think about that one. An answer came so fast it simply had to be the truth. “Because…I loved him,” she replied. “Because I wanted another chance to say ‘I love you, Chubs,’ instead of ‘I hate you, Chubs, for biting me’…” She added softly, “Which was the last thing I ever said to him while he was alive.”

Willa was sobbing. Under normal circumstances, the others might have joined in. They weren’t insensitive. But they still had a giant, ravenous, undead guinea pig to deal with.

Cassidy put her arm around Willa. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. Chubs was a loyal pet.” She picked up the heavy skillet they’d used to make s’mores. “But now it’s time to whack him over the head!” She demonstrated her technique. “One quick whack! Get the brain, get the ghoul. And it’s over.” Tanisha and Kayla concurred; it was a sensible plan.

The girls formed a circle. It would be rock, paper, scissors to decide who the unlucky whacker would be. But Willa interrupted the round almost before it began. “Stop!” She took the skillet from Cassidy’s hand. “It has to be me. Chubs was my responsibility. I have to do it.” Now here’s the thing: the others loved Willa; they cared for her like a sister. But when it came to taking on an undead critter in the middle of the night…
Please allow us to unzip the tent for you on your way out.

And that is exactly what happened. Willa took a deep breath. “I’ll try to draw him out. As soon as you hear me say the coast is clear, make a run for the house.” The girls nodded. Kayla unzipped the tent. Willa lifted the skillet and, with all nine and a half toes leading the charge, ventured off into the wilds of her yard.

Zip-zap-zip!
The tent was zippered up in what had to be record time.

Willa slowly made her way around the perimeter of the tent. She didn’t know what she would do if she ran into Chubs. But splattering his brains with the skillet was never really an option. Besides, she wouldn’t have to. He’d still be Chubs. Larger. Hungrier. His overall demeanor much more
Night of the Living Dead
ish, but he’d still be her little Chubsy-wubsy bear. She could reason with him. Offer him a s’more. If worse came to worst, the rest of her toe.

“How you doing out there?” whispered Kayla from inside before the others shushed her.

Willa couldn’t afford to give away her position, so she said nada. She was just about there. Her heart raced as she crept around a corner of the tent to see…

three-pronged gardening claws shoved into the dirt. It was one of her mom’s tools. And next to that, Willa saw her dad’s shop light propped up on the lawn, a tiny cutout of a guinea pig taped to the bulb, making the oversize silhouette on the canvas wall.

Willa was starting to get the picture. It was a prank, of course. It had to be. A zombie guinea pig wasn’t real. The very idea of it was nuts. About as nutty as a witch-bone.

“You can come out now!” she announced to the others.

“Did you whack it? I didn’t hear any
whackage
.”

But there was nothing to whack. There was only—

“GRRRRrrrrrrrr!”

As soon as Willa let her guard down, a furry beast screeched out of the darkness, lunging for her neck! It was too big to be Chubs. But maybe the witch-bone made things bigger after it brought them back. The reason didn’t much matter. All that mattered were the vampire fangs about to tear a chunk out of Willa’s throat!

She dropped to the ground and rolled, trying to shake loose the dead-alive thing. “Chubs, stop, it’s me!” Up close, Willa clearly saw the green glow of its pointy teeth and the syrupy goop matted to its brown fur.
Grrrrrrr!
And the sales tag attached to its ear.

WHAT?

Willa stopped struggling and sat up straight. Why on earth would an undead guinea pig need a bar code? Unless…

In the same moment, she knew the thing in her hands wasn’t Chubs or any other such creature. It was a stuffed animal, refitted with plastic vampire fangs and fake blood. It had performed its attack by “flying” on a fishing line, an old special effects trick.

The culprit was laughing behind a tree. It was Billy, holding a fishing pole, his tiny sound effect gizmo attached to the rod. He was smiling from ear to ear. “Got ya!”

Willa vaulted to her feet. This time, he had gone too far. But not as far as Willa would go when she got hold of him. Billy would be dead. Deader than Chubs. “You little jerk! When I catch you…”

But Billy looked more confused than afraid. “What? You didn’t think that was chill?”

By then, the girls had marched out of the tent, forming a united front behind Willa. “No, I didn’t think it was
chill
. And I don’t think Dad will think it’s so chill when he finds out you were using his new fishing pole. And I don’t think Mom will think it’s so chill when she finds out who dug up her vegetables!”

“I didn’t touch Mom’s veggies!” shouted Billy.

But Willa was too upset to listen. “Let’s go. We’re waking them up right now!”

“But…but Dad likes to sleep in on weekends.”

“That’s right. So he’ll be even madder!” She placed him in an armlock, a move she’d perfected on Tim.

Billy was starting to quiver. He looked so pathetic, in fact, that even Willa’s friends took pity. “Hey, Will, lighten up. It was just a prank,” Kayla said.

“Yeah. Like something you might have done,” added Cassidy, “only better.”

“You think so, huh? You think I’d do something as disgusting, as
low
, as what he did the same day my pet died? Then you’re more pathetic than he is. All of you! You’re about as pathetic as that stupid witch-bone! If I had one more wish to make, I’d wish you’d leave. All of you. Go home!” Thunder struck, adding an exclamation point.

Cassidy, Tanisha, and Kayla didn’t respond. And really, what else was there to say? They marched back into the tent, grabbed their sleeping bags, and skedaddled.

Willa watched them leave without a word. Yes, she’d lost her cool. But before you go critiquing our lead, remember: it had been an unusually lousy day.

Now there were only Willa and Billy, alone in the yard. He said nothing, either out of respect or intimidation. He picked up the skillet and handed it to his sister, not knowing whether or not she’d be whacking him with it but accepting the consequences all the same. “Sorry, Sis,” he said with a whimper.

Wow! Can you believe it? Billy apologized. He actually said he was sorry. Also, can you believe somebody actually calls their sister “Sis”?

Well, Willa didn’t believe it. Not a word. It was just another one of Billy’s ploys. He had to keep her from blowing the whistle to Mom and Dad.
Nice try, doofus
. But then she heard a different sound, this one not courtesy of his sound effects gizmo. Willa heard crying. Real crying, from her baby brother—something she hadn’t had to deal with in a very long time.
Mustn’t weaken now, Willa. Be strong. Don’t back down. The weak get eaten.
So she simply inquired, “What’s with you?”

“Nothing, jerkoid!” Oh, she had seen that coming. She could have seen it coming from a hundred miles away. But when Billy went sulking off with his head hanging, she chased after him.
Oh, no you don’t. There’s no way you’re playing the victim card tonight.
This time, Billy slipped out of her hold. “Okay, tough guy, why the tears? What are
you
crying about?”

She didn’t expect an answer, at least not a legit one. Something more along the lines of
I’m crying about your face, jerkoid!
But that’s not what she got. You see, Billy had a solid reason for crying. His tears had been earned, the same as Willa’s. He was crying for…“Chubs,” Billy sniffled.

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