From the outside, the Johnson house didn't look haunted. It was a simple, tidy, two story house. The paint was a nondescript, neutral color. Hard to tell if it was a faded yellow or a dirtied cream. But none of the paint was peeling. There were no crooked shutters, or broken glass windows. The grass in the front yard showed signs of recent mowing. Someone had even planted white mums in the flower bed near the covered porch.
I'll tell you something about haunted houses: the really haunted places don't look haunted at all. They feel haunted.
“It's cold here,” Steve muttered. He zipped up his thin jacket and jammed his hands in the pockets.
He was wrong and right. The air wasn't cold, but we felt chilled standing in it. “Something evil is watching us,” I remarked quietly. I stared at each window, waiting for a ghostly face with blank eyes to look back at me.
“That's nonsense. If you're going to start talking like that, before we even get into the house, I'm leaving.”
Wordlessly, I opened my hand and showed him the car keys.
“This is the last time I let you drive,” Steve growled.
“Get over it.” I buttoned up my denim jacket, shoved the keys in my pocket, and led the way up the path to the house.
Just as I unlocked the front door, someone yelled at me.
“Don't!” I heard; “Don't go in there!”
Steve jumped, clearly startled. “Who said that?” he demanded.
A little girl stuck her head up over the short fence that separated the Johnson house from the house next door. “I did,” she said distinctly. “That place is bad. Don't go in.” She disappeared.
Steve and I looked at each other. I was amused. “Wonder where she came from,” I said.
“Hold on a minute. I think I know her. She's related to one of the advanced dancers at the local ballet studio.” Steve walked over to the fence and looked down. “Aren't you Alfredo's niece, Mary?” he asked.
The little girl popped back up. “No. I'm his sister Tina.”
A second girl popped up beside the first. “I'm Mary,” she chimed in.
Steve shook his head, confused. I didn't blame him. The girls looked a lot alike. Mary looked to be the older of the two. Her black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, while Tina wore hers in pigtails.
“I thought Alfredo's sister's name was Kate,” murmured Steve.
“No, that's one of our other sisters,” Tina said.
“Wait, his older sister?”
“No, his older sister is my mom,” Mary said, exasperated. “You should know. My dad is your mom's cousin.”
The conversation was shaping up to be a typical Panhandle genealogical survey, the sort that puts the Mormons to shame. If I stood there long enough I'd probably learn that Tina, Mary, Kate, and Alfredo were all my fourth cousins twice removed, or something equally convoluted. Not something I had time for.
“I've got a question,” I called out to the girls. “What are you doing here?”
“I live over there,” they said in unison. Once pointed to the house next door, and the other pointed to the house across the street.
Interesting and potentially very useful. Kids see a lot, and they're not quick to dismiss the evidence before them like an adult would. I wondered how much the girls knew about the ghost. Somehow, I'd have to get them to talk to me about it.
I strolled across the yard and joined Steve at the fence. “Hi. I'm Maryanne,” I said. I offered my hand to both of the girls. The each shook hands with me in turn.
“I like your name,” Mary said shyly.
“Thank you. I like yours.”
She smiled and looked down at her shoes.
“So, Alfredo is your brother? And he's a dancer?” I asked Tina.
“Uh-huh. He's really good. He's gonna go away to school soon. I'll miss him.” Tina stood up on the balls of her feet and raised her arms over her head. “I dance too. See?”
“Me too,” Mary said quickly. She stroke a pose like Tina. “We're going to be in the Nutcracker,” she added proudly.
Tina settled into a normal stance. She studied Steve and asked, “Aren't you in the Nutcracker?”
“Yes, I'm in the first act,” Steve said. He smiled; I didn't know he could still do that.
The two girls exchanged a look. “Mama will want to offer them breakfast,” Tina said. Mary nodded.
“That's not necessary,” Steve said quickly.
But the girls had made up their minds. Tina looked back at her house. “Alfredo,” she shouted; “Two more for breakfast.”
The door opened. A tall, broad-shouldered kid in his late teens stepped out on the porch. “Who?” he shouted back.
“A Nutcracker person and Maryanne.”
Alfredo stepped to the edge of the porch and stared at us. “Is that you, Steve?”
“Yeah. And this is my cousin, Maryanne,” Steve replied.
Tina pointed at me. “She was going into the haunted house,” she said.
“Mrs. Johnson gave me her key. I want to meet the ghost,” I announced.
Tina and Mary gasped. Steve groaned.
Alfredo walked slowly across his front yard. “You don't want to meet it. You really don't,” he said darkly.
“Yes, I do.”
He looked at me, long and hard. Then he nodded his head. “You better come inside and have breakfast with us. There are a couple of things you should see.”