The House Next Door
“I’m glad it will be dark by the time our guests arrive,” Alyssa Peterson remarked to her sister and mom as they drove down their quiet, one-lane street. “That way nobody will have to see that house.”
“It looks creepier than usual today,” Amanda replied. “At least in the summer it’s hidden behind the trees.”
“I wish the town would just tear it down once and for all,” Mrs. Peterson agreed as she turned to pull into their driveway, kicking up dust in their trail. Their last-minute trip to the grocery store for a few missing party items had resulted in bags and bags of must-have snacks. She gently leaned on the horn. A second later
her youngest daughter, Anne, bounded out of the house to help unload the car.
The girls were almost finished bringing the bags inside when Alyssa motioned for her two younger sisters to huddle around her.
“Everyone at the party tonight will probably want to hear stories about the house next door, but let’s try not talk about it,” she began. “This is going to be our biggest and best New Year’s Eve party yet, and for once I’d like the party to be about us and not that thing next door. Agreed?”
As if on cue, all three sisters turned and stared at the house. The house was something they avoided as much as possible. Its facade was in shambles—glass was cracked on some of the windows, shingles often blew off the roof, and paint was stripped from the wooden boards that loosely held the house together—but they had heard the inside was even more decayed. None of the Petersons had actually been inside the house, but according to town gossip, floorboards were rotting away, doors were hanging loosely on rusty hinges, and some of the electrical wiring was dangerously exposed. Judging on the condition of the lawn, it was easy to believe the
rumors. An old-fashioned wheelbarrow was overturned and corroded with rust on the dead grass. And a broken light post that stood near the wheelbarrow sometimes flicked and buzzed with a surge of electricity.
The sisters turned back and looked at one another.
“Agreed!” Amanda and Anne said in unison.
“It’s almost time, Amanda!” Mrs. Peterson called up the stairs to the second floor. Amanda quickly glanced at the clock on her nightstand and frowned. Her guests would start arriving soon, and she wasn’t close to being ready for her family’s annual New Year’s Eve party. She swiped a tiny brush across her fingernail, adding a final coat of dark berry-red polish.
“Be right down!” Amanda replied. She lightly blew on her fingernails—trying to dry them as quickly as possible—as she walked over to the mirror hanging on the back of her bedroom door for one final chance to examine her outfit before joining her sisters downstairs. The corner of her mouth tilted slightly upward as she admired her new skirt in the reflection. It was a Christmas present from her younger sister, Anne, and
to her surprise, she loved the soft pink color. She twirled around and the skirt’s light, airy fabric billowed around her. Smoothing down the ruffles, she looked herself over from head to toe, from the slightly darker pink shirt to the white ballet slippers. All right, she thought, maybe I’ve gone a little too girly. She slipped out of her shoes and tugged on her favorite pair of silver-metallic high-top sneakers. As she tied the laces, she started thinking about Paul Furby, hoping that he would finally notice her this year.
“Amanda, we need you downstairs now!” Mrs. Peterson called again.
Amanda swung the door open and stepped into the hallway just as raindrops began pattering on the roof. She ran back into her room and peered out the window. Thick, dark clouds hung heavily over their house. She leaned closer into the window until she could see down to the porch below. After lots and lots of begging by the three sisters, their parents had finally agreed that this year the adults would stay upstairs while the girls would be allowed to host their own party in the basement. It would be guys and girls until midnight, and then the boys would leave. The girls would stay for a sleepover
and Mr. Peterson’s famous New Year’s Day breakfast. Strictly no adults allowed. And the sisters were hoping the mild southern Texas weather would hold throughout the night so they could mingle outside on the porch too. But as Amanda saw the rain streaking down her window, she wondered if they were doomed. She hoped this bit of rain would pass soon.
Slowly, her gaze swept across the wildflower fields and toward the creepy old neighboring house. She could barely even make out its silhouette in the dark night, but her thoughts raced to a memory she’d rather forget.
Months earlier, Amanda had been throwing a softball back and forth with Anne, breaking in her new catcher’s mitt. Amanda was always far more athletic than her sisters, so when she tossed the ball to Anne, she didn’t expect her sister to hurl it back so forcefully. It went straight over Amanda’s head and way past their lawn. After scouring the meadow for the lost ball, Amanda finally found it, and she turned to tell Anne. But when she reached down to pick it up, the ball had disappeared again. Amanda walked a little farther and still couldn’t find it. As she walked on, she saw the
ball roll out of the tall weeds and into the lifeless yard of the abandoned house—as if something or someone was using the ball to lure her closer to it. When Amanda finally snatched the ball up, she was right next to the house, nearer than she’d ever been. She heard whispers coming from inside. She wasn’t sure, but it sounded like they were saying “stay away.” She ran back to Anne and told her that she was done playing catch and wanted to go back inside.
The thought of that day still made Amanda uncomfortable. She sighed and decided it was finally time to join her sisters before her mom called her again.
Amanda flew down the stairs. She stopped abruptly when she reached the dining room, blinking her eyes in disbelief. Her parents had transformed their country-style home into a glamorous nightclub. While they were at the grocery store, Mr. Peterson must have swapped the large shabby-chic wooden dining-room table, where the family ate dinner together every night, with three tall glass-and-chrome tables. Amanda ran her finger along the smooth glass as she walked past each table. Her eyes feasted on plates piled high with fresh shrimp and cocktail sauce, sushi, spring rolls, and seven different kinds
of dip surrounded by veggies and crackers. There was even a chocolate fountain for dipping fruit and pieces of cake, and a large crystal bowl filled with frothy, pink punch. The Petersons’ New Year’s Eve party had never been so elaborate.
Ten years earlier, when the Petersons first moved to Glory, Texas, Mr. and Mrs. Peterson had invited a few of their coworkers over to clink glasses at midnight. Every year, as they made more friends, more guests were invited and the party had gotten increasingly impressive. Amanda had never seen her home as luxuriously decorated as it was tonight. This year, it seemed like all of Glory had been invited, and that made them the most famous family in town—at least for tonight.
Then, all of a sudden, the lights went dim. Amanda spun around and watched as speckles of light began to dance on the walls. She looked up to see a giant mirrored disco ball slowly turning above her.
“What do you think?” Anne asked.
The corner of Amanda’s mouth lifted and she nodded. “Amazing!”
“Let’s grab the snacks,” Anne suggested. “Mom’s just about finished.”
Amanda followed her younger sister into the kitchen, where Mrs. Peterson was standing at the counter dipping large, red strawberries into a bowl filled with dark chocolate. She was wearing a bright red dress and black, shiny patent-leather heels. She also wore the earrings Mr. Peterson had hidden in her Christmas stocking. The earrings sparkled in the light. Amanda couldn’t help but think her mom looked glamorous, even though she was wearing her old stained apron over her party dress.
Mrs. Peterson glanced at Amanda and grinned. “You look beautiful, Amanda! I knew we could get you out of those old jeans.”
“I told Alyssa you’d like my present,” Anne said, looking very smug while sitting on a stool at the counter next to their mom. “She said you wouldn’t be seen in public wearing it because it’s a skirt.”
“I do like it.” Amanda smiled at her sister. “Are these for us, Mom?” Amanda asked, walking over to a large plate filled with the delicious chocolate-covered strawberries.
“I made them especially for you,” Mrs. Peterson said, knowing her middle daughter loved the secret ingredient—a pinch of sea salt in the dark chocolate. The
sweet-salty combo was Amanda’s favorite indulgence.
“Thanks, Mom,” Amanda replied. She grabbed the plate and headed for the basement stairs. Anne wrinkled her nose at the passing strawberries, never really caring much for any kind of fruit—even those covered in chocolate. She hopped off the stool, grabbed a few bottles of soda, and was quickly on Amanda’s heels. Mrs. Peterson chuckled and shook her head. Even though her three girls were close in age, they were very different from one another.
Alyssa was twelve; Amanda was eleven; and Anne was ten. It was a family tradition for everyone in the Peterson family to have a first name that started with A. The girls always told their friends it was easy to remember who was oldest because their names lined up in alphabetical order: Alyssa, Amanda, then Anne. Being the oldest, Alyssa was known as the responsible one. Not only was she a straight-A student and on the honor roll, she was also the treasurer of her seventh-grade class and secretary of the Environmental Club. Amanda was in sixth grade and loved to play sports, especially in the warm Texas sun, and was already cocaptain of the varsity volleyball squad. And Anne, the youngest
and in fifth grade, was a social butterfly—spunky, fun-loving, and always up for a dare! But as different as they were, they were as close as sisters could be. Also with Anne’s recent growth spurt—that added two inches to her height—the girls often overheard people saying that they could pass for triplets.
Amanda entered the basement with Anne close behind her, and she carefully placed the overflowing plate of strawberries next to the rest of the snacks on the coffee table.
“Where have you been?” Alyssa asked. “I’ve been waiting for you both to help me.” She was teetering on a chair, trying to center a gold-and-silver HAPPY NEW YEAR! banner on the wall above the sliding glass doors in the basement. She glanced at her sisters and nearly fell off the chair. She knew Anne couldn’t wait to wear her new dress, but she was surprised to see how grown-up her little sister looked in it! Anne spun in a circle and the cream-colored dress twirled around her. Her eyes twinkled just as brightly as the rhinestones on her black velvet belt. She even added a swipe of lip gloss that matched her cheerful poppy-colored cardigan and flats.
Alyssa was equally surprised to see Amanda—one
of the biggest tomboys she knew—wearing a skirt! She was about to say something when a small wobble from the chair snapped her attention back to balancing on it.
“Is this centered?” Alyssa asked, still holding the banner.
Anne stepped back to get a better look, and crossed her arms. “A little to the left,” she directed. Alyssa adjusted the banner.
“No, too much! Now an inch down,” Anne said.
Alyssa sighed. Her arms ached from holding up the sign. “There!” she declared, putting a thumbtack into it. Crooked or too low, the banner was hung. She leaped off the chair as graceful as a cat—a sure sign of the many years she had spent in the ballet studio.
Alyssa eyed the clock and walked over to a small table to pick up the list she created days earlier. Studying it, she frowned. “Okay, guys, we’re now officially running late,” she told her sisters. “It’s seven twenty, and our guests will start to arrive in about ten minutes.” She quickly scanned the goodies on the snack table. “Anne, run upstairs and grab the sparkling cider and plastic champagne flutes. We’ll need them to make a toast at midnight.”
Alyssa then walked back over to the sliding glass doors and looked outside. “Looks like the rain has stopped. Amanda, you’ll need to clean up the porch. Sweep off all the leaves, put some candles around, arrange the chairs in a semicircle, and put the table over there,” she said, pointing to the far side of the porch. “And pick some wildflowers from the meadow. We can use them to brighten up the porch.”
Amanda shot a look at Anne, and they both rolled their eyes. It always seemed like Alyssa was bossing them around, but they were used to it by now.
“I’ll organize the snack table so it doesn’t look like a huge mess,” Alyssa continued. “Remember, we only have ten minutes. So hurry!”
Amanda grabbed the broom, a couple of old jam jars to use as flower vases, and some tea lights from the cupboard and went out to the porch. Winters in Glory, Texas, were usually sunny and warm during the day, but the temperature could dip when the sun went down. Even so, the Peterson sisters agreed that as long as it didn’t rain too much, it would be fun to celebrate outside while the clock ticked toward midnight.
Amanda wiped all the furniture dry and then swept
the leaves away. And although the wooden furniture was now arranged and tidy, it still looked drab. Annoyed that Alyssa had been right about needing flowers to brighten up the porch, Amanda sighed loudly and walked behind the Petersons’ house, where she was sure to find some wildflowers in the vast meadow that surrounded their house.
Amanda had always loved smelling the subtle, sweet scent of the wildflowers as she played catch with her dad in the evenings or practiced basketball layups in the driveway. The colorful fields that surrounded their redbrick home made it look just like a picture on a postcard. But she always wished that they lived a little closer to town. Their house was miles away from school, and she always felt so isolated living out in the middle of nowhere, as she usually put it. One tiny, winding dirt road was the only way to get to and from the Petersons’ house. Sometimes her friends’ parents would complain about making the drive for after-school homework sessions and weekend sleepovers. And, to be fair, it really was far from town. Amanda also wished she had neighbors she could visit. Only one house stood along with the Petersons’ at the end of the dusty road. And it had
been abandoned since before they had even moved to Glory, so it didn’t really count.
Amanda remembered noticing earlier that day while it was still light, that the prettiest wildflowers were blooming in the field farthest from their home—and closest to the abandoned house. Amanda bit her bottom lip. She didn’t want her sisters to call her chicken, but she also didn’t want to get in trouble. Their parents never wanted them roaming too close to the deserted house.
And that was fine with Amanda and Alyssa. They never liked getting too close anyway. It was a strange house. And it always left them feeling uneasy. Vines—dead and brown—enveloped it, making it look like a bug trapped in a spider web. The mailbox hung from its post by a single rusty nail—waiting to be released to its freedom—and creaked at the smallest passing breeze. And, once, she and Alyssa saw the mailbox swinging back and forth on its nail on a perfectly still and cloudless day.
For some reason, only the youngest Peterson sister, Anne, had never been bothered by the house’s oddities. She had laughed when her sisters told her that a silly old
mailbox had made them run as fast as wild horses back into the safety of their own house. And, of course, they later agreed that there had to be a rational explanation for why the mailbox had swayed back and forth on a windless day. An animal could have scampered across and the girls didn’t see it. Still, the thought of anything having to do with the house sent a chill down Amanda’s spine.
As Amanda reached the wildflowers, she thought about that eerie day, and her heart thumped rapidly in her chest. She quickly gathered the prettiest flowers, willing herself not to look over at the old house. The basket she was carrying was just about filled when she heard a screeching sound. Amanda cringed. She couldn’t resist it any longer. She looked up toward the house.
There it stood, forbidding as always, surrounded by the same dead trees. Amanda held her breath as she waited for more sounds to come from the direction of the house. There were none. Amanda puffed out her cheeks while exhaling with relief. But her muscles quickly tightened as she noticed something about the house that sent a cold shock through her veins. The shutters on the attic window, which had been tightly closed and locked
ever since the Petersons moved to Glory, were suddenly wide open. The window, now exposed to the world, stared dark and bleak, almost as though the house were alive and glaring straight toward Amanda.