It was a dark and stormy night. A thick, choking fog rolled in from the sea. In the dense thicket of the woods, a woman screamed, backing slowly away as a hideous creature advanced on her. The heels of her right pump dangled precariously over the edge of a murky pond. Turning to look behind her, she let out another ear-shattering shriek. The monster moved closer, jaws snapping, claws raking at the air. Time was almost up for her. She had to choose. The monster or the pond…
“People were actually scared of these movies in the 50s?” Sabrina Harris scoffed aloud, clicking off the TV remote. She let out a heavy sigh and let her head fall back onto the butter-soft leather of the sofa.
Through the skylight above the living room, Sabrina caught sight of a flock of geese flying over the house. It was getting dark. When she checked her watch, she scowled.
“It’s only nine-o-clock!”
Sabrina was bored. That was her problem. She was always bored.
“How can you be bored in a house like that?” Gina, her best friend, had once asked her.
Gina was right. Sabrina had the perfect summer job. While most kids her age had to serve ice cream to whining kids, deal with snobby mall shoppers or swelter the summer away in a lifeguard chair, Sabrina got to spend her time in a perfectly air-conditioned mansion.
All courtesy of 6-year-old Toby Howard and his incredibly wealthy parents.
Sabrina had met the Howard family by accident. She’d been walking through the park with Bruno; or rather, the hated Saint Bernard had been walking her when she’d quite literally plowed into Toby. The small, tow-headed boy had been completely bowled over by Bruno but instead of crying like Sabrina had expected, he’d begun to laugh.
By the time Toby’s parents had arrived, Toby and Sabrina were lost in conversation. For a 6-year-old, the kid was as smart as a whip. Sabrina knew so much about Toby and the Howard family that she was almost embarrassed to make introductions.
“We’ve actually been looking for a baby-sitter,” Mr. Howard had told her. “Toby will need somebody to be home with him during the summer while we’re traveling.”
At first, Sabrina had wondered why Toby wouldn't be accompanying his parents but soon learned that they both spent long weeks and sometimes months abroad for business. Sabrina had found herself agreeing immediately. When they offered her 20 dollars an hour, she knew her short-lived dog-walking career was over.
“Yeah, the money and hours are great, but I bet he’s a snotty little kid though, right?” Tanya, Sabrina’s older sister, had asked.
Nope. That was the thing about Toby. Not only was he cute as a button, he was polite. He was soft-spoken and shy and always remembered to say, “please” and “thank you.” He was also an only child, which probably explained why he spoke and acted more like an adult than a kid.
The only complaint she had was that Toby never seemed to want to do much outside of the house. It was two weeks into the job and other than going swimming in the heated outdoor swimming pool, Sabrina and her charge hardly ever left the house. On more than one occasion, Sabrina had offered to take him horseback riding or to a movie but each time, he politely refused, saying he’d rather stay inside and play.
“He’s a shy little guy,” Mrs. Howard had told Sabrina when she’d brought the subject up. “Ever since Melina left, he seems withdrawn. He was very attached to her.”
Melina had been the Howard’s maid for 16 years. According to Mr. and Mrs. Howard, she’d suddenly become clumsy, breaking priceless items and becoming secretive. Eventually, Mrs. Howard found missing jewelry and clothing in the back of Melina’s closet and had to let her go.
“I just don’t know what makes people do things like that. They have a perfectly good situation and ruin it,” Mrs. Howard had lamented.
That certainly explained a lot. Though it was sad to think of, Toby had probably been closer to the maid than his own parents. At least Melina had been around.
Sabrina got up and stretched now, dropping the remote on the couch. She went to the kitchen and grabbed a Perrier out of the refrigerator. She smiled as she twisted off the cap. She was beginning to get used to things like mineral water and caviar. The Howard’s had let her try some of this delicacy left over from a dinner party and she’d been shocked to find she liked it.
“Ewww, fish eggs!” Gina had squealed.
For a week, Sabrina had gotten random text messages every day with pictures of fish, each one more hideous and creepy than the next. That was the last time she told Gina about trying something new with the Howard’s.
Sabrina walked to the French doors and opened them, stepping out onto the terrace. The night was warm but a cool breeze came off the ocean just a mile away. The water in the Olympic-sized pool glittered in the solar lights scattered about the yard.
Being wealthy certainly seemed to have its advantages but was it really the healthiest way for a kid to grow up? She wondered if Toby was ever lonely. He didn’t seem to have any friends his own age.
A noise behind her made her whirl around. Had that come from inside? She opened the doors and stepped back into the kitchen. Standing still, she listened intently. Hadn’t she just heard something?
Closing the doors to the terrace behind her, she tip-toed around the downstairs, stopping every few moments to listen. Then, she heard it again, a creaking sound coming from upstairs. She looked up at the ceiling, trying to determine which room the sound was coming from. She had one foot poised over the bottom step when the telephone rang. She let out a small scream then clapped her hand over her mouth.
“Dummy!” She hissed at herself, crossing the room to the telephone.
“Hello. Howard residence. Sabrina speaking.”
Sabrina felt a shiver pass up her spine. Once more, above her head, the floorboards creaked.
“Hello? Who is this, please?”
The voice on the other end was a quiet, breathy whisper.
“You need to leave the house.”
Sabrina’s eyes flitted to the ceiling. She turned to look at the stairs expecting to see Toby coming down, sleepy-eyed and tousle-haired. He did that sometimes, wanting a glass of milk or something to snack on.
She turned her full attention back to the caller on the other end of the line.
“Who is this?”
“You need to get out of the house. You are not safe.”
“Is this some kind of joke?”
Sabrina could feel heat rising in her face and neck. Just what she needed, a crank caller.
“No joke. Get out of the house.”
The caller hung up.
Sabrina pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at the digital display. No number. Apparently, the Howard’s were the only people in the universe without caller ID.
“Who would do something so weird?”
Sabrina rubbed at the gooseflesh that had formed on her arms. The person on the other end had made it a point to whisper their words, attempting to disguise their identity. Well, it worked. Sabrina couldn’t tell if the caller had been a man or a woman, old or young. There was something distinctive about it, though, but she couldn't place what. Her friends would never do something so immature but even if they planned to, they only had her cell phone number.
Heaving a deep sigh, Sabrina forced herself to walk away from the phone. She felt a sudden strong urge to check on Toby.
The voice came out of nowhere and Sabrina let out a shriek, whirling to face the front door. She stared at the solid oak, swallowing the thick lump of saliva that had formed in her throat.
She almost laughed. The reply had been automatic. She hadn’t meant to say it.
The voice was high-pitched, almost girlish, and it came from right outside the front door. Sabrina moved closer. It was just some kid playing a prank. It had to be. Summoning all her courage, she pushed herself up against the heavy locked door and peered out through the peephole.
Nobody was there.
She stepped back, eyes narrowing. She padded toward the window and peeked through the drapes. Still, she saw nobody. Not even a shadow.
“Yeah, this isn’t creepy or anything,” Sabrina said aloud, comforted by the familiar sound of her own voice. She backed away from the window and crept around to the other side of the house. Within ten minutes, she’d covered the entire downstairs, peering carefully out of every window, almost hoping to catch a glimpse of the joker but she saw nobody.
When she got upstairs to Toby’s room, she opened the door only a crack and peered inside. He was asleep, a small mass of covers and pillows tucked up at the head of the bed. A spinning nightlight on his dresser cast strange, undulating blue and yellow beams of light and contrasting shadows on the wall.
All the windows upstairs were shut and locked.
Sabrina decided to go back downstairs. It was only 9:40. She could call Gina or Mandy or even Rob if all else failed. Not that she wanted to talk to her ex-boyfriend but it was better than being completely alone in the house.
She decided on Gina.
Gina sounded annoyed. She always sounded annoyed lately.
“What’s up with you?”
“Oh, hi,” Gina said. “What’s up?”
“You knew it was me.”
“You're not going to believe this.”
“What, they’ve decided to invite you on their annual cruise in the Bahamas?”
“Jealous much?” Sabrina snapped. “And no, nobody’s invited me anywhere. I just got a crank phone call and some kid is playing some weird version of ding-dong ditch at the house.”
“Spooky!” Gina said brightly.
“You going to write a story about it?”
You’d never know it to look at her, but Gina loved a good mystery or ghost story. She devoured horror novels and scary movies with alarming relish and spent a lot of her free time looking into creepypastas and urban legends. If she hadn’t confided in Sabrina that she planned to someday be a career novelist, her best friend might have thought she planned to be a serial killer.
“I might. What’s going on?”
Sabrina told her.
“Oh, that is creepy. Is Toby still asleep?”
“Yeah, that kid could sleep through anything.”
“Hey, maybe there’s a ghost in the house or something.”
“Um, a ghost who makes crank phone calls and says, 'Knock knock' instead of actually knocking?”
“Yeah, alright. You don’t have to get all snotty. I’m right by the computer. Maybe I should look up the history of the Howard house.”
“The place was custom built for them, Gina. It’s only about 6 or 7 years old.”
Despite Sabrina’s protests, she heard the clicking of keys on the other end of the line.
“Wow, I didn’t know they owned a Fortune 500 company!”
“What does that mean anyway?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you find anything?”
“Not yet. Gimme a second, jeez! Hey, has Rob called you yet?”
“He sent me a couple of text messages. I’m ignoring him.”
“Good for you. Oh, hey!”
“Did you know the Howard’s let their housekeeper go because she was stealing from them?”
“Oh.” Gina sounded disappointed. “Did you know she was deported?”
“Yup, apparently she was an illegal alien. Somebody sent in an anonymous tip.”
“That’s terrible. The poor woman.”
“She was a thief!”
The phone clicked on Gina’s end.
“Oh, I got to go. That’s Peter!”
Before Sabrina could say goodbye, Gina had already hung up. Rolling her eyes, she pocketed the cell phone and flopped back down on the couch. Peter was the latest “love of Gina’s life.” She had a new one about every other week.
Sabrina would never be so popular. Gina was blonde, bubbly, and busty and Sabrina was just the opposite; short, underweight, with long dark hair, and oily olive-colored skin that broke out constantly no matter what she did.
She hadn’t realized she’d drifted off until a noise awakened her. She sat bolt upright, the memory of the crank call and strange incident outside instantly sharpening her senses.
What was that scraping sound?
Sabrina pulled herself up off the couch and stood in the middle of the living room. A sound like a squirrel scrabbling on siding came from somewhere outside. Sabrina crossed the room, pressed her ear to the door, and listened intently.
The scraping stopped, leaving an eerie, pregnant silence in its place.
She jumped at the sound of the voice.
“You know, you’re not funny. Who are you?”
Sabrina pressed her eye to the peephole. Nobody.
“Where are you hiding?”
Anger quickly replacing fear, Sabrina twisted the lock and flung open the door. She glanced to the left and right and all around the yard.
Nobody. Nothing. What the heck?
The bushes to her right rustled. She stepped back.
“Alright, I know you’re in there. This isn’t funny. Get out before I call the police.”
The bushes continued to move. Furious now, she plunged into the shrub, shoving the leaves aside, prepared to unleash a tirade at the kid surely hiding there. She screamed when a large, black mass hurled itself at her throat.
She staggered back against the open door as the black cat hightailed it through the front yard. When it reached the side of the house, it turned and hissed before disappearing around a corner and out of sight.
Trembling, Sabrina stumbled back across the threshold and locked the door. Her heart was pounding so hard she thought it might burst right through her chest. Her knees buckled and she sagged against the door, sliding downward until her butt connected with carpet. She crossed her arms over her knees and closed her eyes, trying to get her breathing under control.
“It was a cat. Just a cat.”
After a few minutes, she forced herself to stand up. She was still shaking. Should she call the police? What would the Howard’s think if she freaked out over a practical joke? She’d proven herself reliable so far and didn’t want to give them any reason to let her go.
This time, she dialed Mandy's number.
“Hi, this is Mandy. I’m probably at the mall. Leave a message.”
Sabrina didn’t leave a message. She rolled her eyes and hung up. Mandy wasn’t at the mall at this hour. She was probably asleep.
She glanced at her watch again. The Howard’s had said they’d be home by 1 AM at the latest. It was just after 11 now. She could handle two more hours. Besides, the kid who thought he was funny was bound to have a curfew. He couldn’t keep messing around all night.
Sabrina had just started to relax and get into another movie, this time a comedy, when she heard a noise again. She paused the DVD and strained to listen. Nothing. She pressed play and put the remote down. Getting up from the couch, she moved quietly, deliberately over to the front door and peered out of the peephole.
She had to stifle a gasp when she saw the small shadow pass under the porch light. There really was somebody out there! She grasped the doorknob firmly, placing her other hand on the lock. She was going to catch this weirdo once and for all!
The phone rang. She bit back a scream.
Cursing, she walked over to the phone and picked it up.
“Hello, Howard res-”
She was cut off by a loud burst of static and the same voice from before whispered in her ear.
“Get out of the house!!”
“Leave me alone!”
Slamming the receiver down, she reached behind the desk it sat on and unplugged it from the wall.
She whirled around to face the door. Muscles tense. Mouth dry.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
The question was greeted by more deafening silence.
“Who are you?”
She couldn’t have heard that right.
“I’m death. I’ve come to kill you.”
Eyes widening in horror, she backed away from the door and pulled out her cell phone.
“I’m calling the police right now.”
Taking the stairs two at a time, she headed straight for Toby’s room. She had already dialed 911 and had her finger poised over the button to send the call through when she saw with a thrill of horror that Toby’s bed was empty.
“Toby!” She screamed. “Toby, where are you?”
Sabrina suddenly felt as if she were going to pass out. The hallway tilted left to right as if she were on an ocean liner.
A small hand slipped into hers and she shrieked again, dropping the phone and slamming into a wall.
Toby’s blue eyes went wide with fear and his lower lip began to tremble.
“Oh, you’re okay!” Sabrina said. She knelt down beside him and took him by the shoulders. “Where were you?”
“I… I was in the bathroom,” Toby replied in a voice thick with sleep. “What’s the matter?”
She hugged the small boy to her.
“Sweetie, we need to go sit downstairs, okay? Somebody has been pulling a joke on us and I want to call the police.”
“Police?” Toby asked. “Is there a burglar?”
Sabrina reached for the dropped phone and realized the back had come off. The battery lay a few feet away. She struggled for a moment to put it back together and was grateful when she saw a signal.
“Alright, sweetie,” Sabrina said. “Let’s go downstairs, okay?”
She picked the child up and was halfway down the stairs when she heard the hard knock at the front door.
Sensing her fear, Toby gripped his babysitter tightly around the neck. Sabrina wanted to whisper words of encouragement but found her mouth as paralyzed as her body. She couldn’t move. She was rooted to the spot.
The knock came again, followed by a loud, booming voice.
“This is the police. Open up!”
Sabrina managed to put Toby down despite his vice-like grip. She walked with him to the front door, holding his hand and keeping him behind her.
“I want to see a badge,” Sabrina demanded in a trembling voice.
She forced herself to look through the peephole and sighed with relief when she saw the gold-plated shield sparkle in the porch light. The officer holding it pulled it away and smiled. Beside the officer was a sheepish-looking little boy, about 9- or 10-years-old. She opened the door.
“Good evening, Miss,” the policeman said. “I’m Officer Russell. How are you?”
Sabrina nodded. Toby peered out from behind her.
“I’m Sabrina. I’m the babysitter. Somebody has been to this house. They were at the front door on and off all night, messing around.”
“Here’s your culprit,” Office Russell announced, looking down at the boy. “Several of the neighbors have been making complaints that somebody has been ringing their doorbell or knocking and then leaving.”
Sabrina glared at the kid.
“Why would you do that?”
He shrugged and stared at the ground.
“I was just bored, I guess.”
Bored. Sabrina had been bored only a few hours ago.
“It’s over, Miss. Tom here won’t be bothering you anymore. I’m taking him home to his parents.”
“Thank you, Officer. I was just about to call you guys myself.” Sabrina pocketed the cell phone. She looked at the kid, Tom.
“So you decided to go all out, huh? Crank calling me and then coming to the door?”
Tom looked up, a puzzled expression crossed his face. He opened his mouth to speak but Officer Russel interrupted him.
"Crank calls too, huh? That’s what happens when parents give their 10-year-old a cell phone. Hand it over.”
The boy’s face colored tomato red as he fished into his cargo pants and pulled out a small, black phone. The officer pocketed it.
“C’mon, son,” Officer Russell said. “No more late night wanderings for you. It’s time to go home.”
“Goodnight, Miss.” With an old-fashioned tip of his hat, the policeman departed with the boy.
Sabrina breathed a sigh of relief as she closed and locked the door. She knelt down in front of Toby.
“Are you okay?”
He shrugged his small shoulders. “Yeah, I’m okay. You just scared me before.”
Sabrina smoothed his hair and gave his round cheek a gentle squeeze.
“Let’s get you back upstairs to bed.”
Sabrina’s cell phone buzzed. She pulled it out of her pocket and squinted at the number. It was Mrs. Howard calling.
“Sabrina!” Mrs. Howard sounded anxious. “Thank goodness I got a hold of you. Is something wrong with the phone?”
“Oh, no… I’m sorry,” Sabrina said, scrambling off the couch. She muted the volume on the TV and crossed the room to the telephone.
“I had it unplugged. Some kid was making crank calls. I’m sorry.”
She jammed the plug back into the wall. The display sprang to life and flashed weird symbols before showing the time and date as usual.
There was a relieved sigh on the other end of the line.
“Crank calls, huh?” Mrs. Howard said. “That’s odd. Our phone number is unlisted. Is everything alright?”
“Oh, yeah,” Sabrina said, forcing a lighthearted tone. “Yeah, everything is fine. Toby is asleep. The police caught the kid who was doing it. He was apparently going around to all the houses and messing around too, saying stuff.”
The reply was muted by static.
“What was that?”
“I need you to stay overnight. Can you manage that?”
“I’m sorry. We can’t possibly get home tonight. Our flight has been delayed.”
Sabrina checked her watch. It was just after midnight.
“I understand. It’s no problem. I’ve got my overnight stuff with me.”
“Alright,” Mrs. Howard said. There was a silence for a moment and then she spoke again, “Are you sure everything is alright?”
“Yes. No problems at all.”
“Well, we’ll see you in the morning.”
“Goodnight, Mrs. Howard.”
They hung up.
“Great,” Sabrina muttered. “All I wanted to do was get out of here tonight.”
She headed upstairs to the guest bedroom and pulled out the overnight bag she kept in the closet. She’d been asked to stay overnight a few times already.
The phone in her pocket buzzed again.
“Get out of the house!”
Sabrina stopped breathing. The room swam dangerously again and she had to grab the wall to steady herself. She yanked the phone away from her ear and checked the caller ID.
“Gina! What is wrong with you? That’s not funny!”
“I’m not being funny. Do you realize somebody died in that house?”
“What?” Sabrina closed the door to the bedroom and sat cross-legged on the full-sized bed. “What are you talking about?”
“Okay, seriously, when are the Howard’s getting home?”
“Gina, they’re not. Mrs. Howard just called me. Their flight has been delayed.”
“What is going on?”
“Did you get any more weird phone calls?”
“Just this one.”
Sabrina could almost see Gina rolling her eyes on the other end of the line.
“No, Gina. Some kid was fooling around. The cops got him hours ago. Nothing has happened since.”
“You’ve got the hear this story. After I got off the phone with Peter, I decided to do some more snooping on the Howard place.”
“This is creepy.”
“What?” Sabrina was getting exasperated.
“The babysitter before you died in that house.”
“Please tell me this is your idea of a sick joke.”
“It’s not. Do you remember Carol Schroeder?”
“Yeah, sort of. She was the real quiet girl, right? I thought she transferred schools or something.”
“No, she died. In that house! She was babysitting for a couple of weeks and they found her dead in the swimming pool. She drowned.”
Sabrina sucked in a breath.
“Oh, that’s horrible! Did Toby see that? Were they swimming at the time?”
“No, that’s just it. The Howard’s found her lying face down in the pool early in the morning. She had all her clothes on.”
Sabrina shuddered at the thought of how many times she and Toby had swam in that pool not knowing that there had once been a dead body floating in it.
“She must have fallen in or something.”
“She shouldn’t have just drowned, Sabrina. She was on the swim team.”
Sabrina’s mouth fell open.
“That’s not the only weird thing, either,” Gina went on. “Carol had called the police that night. It’s on record.”
“Called the police for what?”
“Apparently somebody kept coming to the door and messing around. Banging on the windows and terrorizing her.”
“Oh my God, Gina!” Sabrina jumped off the bed. “Are you serious? That’s just like what's been happening to me!”
A sudden horrible image of her own body lying face down in the Howard’s pool floated into her mind. She found herself crossing to the window and looking out. One of the streetlamps flickered on and off. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked.
“Yeah, but they caught the kid, right?” Gina's voice brought her back to the present.
“They did,” Sabrina said. “Still, I had no idea that Toby had ever had another babysitter. I thought Melina, the housekeeper, did that.”
“Melina was actually questioned in Carol’s drowning.”
“Apparently after she was fired, she started stalking the Howard’s. She would call at all hours of the night and say things, make threats or something.”
“Okay, maybe I need to quit this job.”
“I just thought I’d tell you.”
Sabrina's stomach clenched as a sudden thought came to her. She frowned. “Why did you say, ‘get out of the house’ when I picked up?”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s the first thing you said. That’s the exact thing that the crank caller said to me when he called. Those exact words.”
“What are you saying, that I crank called you?” Gina sounded incredulous.
“It’s just weird, that’s all.”
“Yeah, well I was just saying, it’s not a safe place. Weird stuff happens there, okay?”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry.”
“Look, call me if anything else happens? I’ll have my cell right by the bed.”
“Alright. Thanks, Gina. I’ll probably have nightmares now, but thanks.”
They hung up. Sabrina sat down heavily on the edge of the bed. She knew she wouldn’t get a wink of sleep tonight. Still, the police had caught the kid who’d been making the crank calls and coming around to the houses, right? She settled back against the pillows.
What would a housekeeper who’d worked for a family for 16 years suddenly start stealing things and then call and make threats after she was fired? That made no sense. Gina had to have gotten that part wrong.
Then there was Carol. Sabrina felt bad now that she’d never really tried to make friends with her. She’d always had her nose in a book. Gina was on the swim team, though. How had Sabrina never noticed that Carol had been also? The image of the dark-haired bespectacled girl floating helplessly in the pool swam back into Sabrina’s thoughts.
She shook it away.
Sabrina gasped and sat bolt upright in the bed. Something about the kid making the crank calls hadn’t made any sense. It had been bothering her all night and now she’d finally put her finger on it.
No wonder that boy had looked so confused when she’d mentioned she’d been getting strange phone calls. He hadn’t made them!
Sabrina got up and began to pace. The person on the other end of the phone had a Spanish accent. Melina? Sabrina shuddered. Had she called to make threats again? No. What she’d said wasn't a threat. It was a warning.
A warning from what? Had somebody really murdered Carol? Why hadn’t the Howard’s told Sabrina about her?
“Because I wouldn’t have taken the job,” Sabrina said aloud.
The sound of the frantic, high-pitched shout hit Sabrina like a punch to the gut.
She bolted out of the bedroom and down the hall to his room. He wasn’t there.
She took the steps two at a time, running at full speed toward the living room. She turned from right to left but saw no sign of him. When she rounded the corner into the kitchen, she half expected to see him lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood but there was nobody. Nothing.
Sabrina really couldn’t take much more of this hellish night. She wanted it to be over.
“Help me! Out here!”
Sabrina burst through the French doors and out onto the terrace. She screamed when her feet hit wet tile and she slipped, landing hard on her right side. It was pouring!
Scrambling to her feet, she called Toby’s name again. He was nowhere in sight. A sudden clap of thunder made her jump. Her hair and shirt were already soaked through.
Her throat hurt. She whirled around, squinting through the rain for a sign of the little boy. Where was he? Had he gotten hurt somewhere? Why was he even out here?
Sabrina rushed forward, her bare feet slipping precariously on wet grass and tile. She steadied herself on the concrete edge of the in-ground pool and looked inside. Crouching, she peered into the dark, roiling water, terrified she would see the small, tow-haired boy beneath.
All she could see was her own frightened reflection.
Wait. What was that? There was a shape in the water, a small shape. She reached out to touch the surface and the shape shimmered and blurred.
“Toby?” she whispered.
Her stomach clenched as slow realization dawned on her. The shape wasn’t in the pool. It was outside of the pool. Behind her.
She whipped her head around.
Little Toby stood behind her, white T-shirt and tousled hair drenched in rainwater. His light blue eyes fixed on hers as a maniacal grin spread over what she had always thought of as a cherubic face.
He stepped forward, raising the large jagged rock in his right hand.