It started as a dare.
It always started as a dare. They knew, the other kids, that Brigid -- as standoffish as she was -- could never refuse a dare. Not a really good one.
It was such a cliché, too. A big old abandoned house on the edge of the woods that everyone said was haunted. Go inside, spend the night, we dare you. At first, Brigid had tried to be smart, to refuse the dare, to mock the other kids about how stupid it was. Sometimes that worked.
I'm not going to eat a worm, that's just stupid. That time it had worked. The other kids agreed it was dumb and they just wanted to see her do something gross. So she picked her nose at them, and they went away.
She didn't tell anyone, not even the teddy bear that still stood sentinel next to her pillow every night even though she was sixteen now and supposed to be above that sort of thing, but later when she was all alone, she had eaten a worm, just to see what it was like. She washed it first, and she couldn't bear to bite down on its wriggling pink body, so she had swallowed it whole. And then she felt bad for days after -- sometimes she still felt bad, remembering -- that she had eaten something living without first putting it out of its misery.
It hadn't tasted like much.
But this, this dare wouldn't go away. Come on, scaredy cat, we dare you. That was the second dare. Brigid was not afraid of very many things, except being mocked. She hated being mocked. Big old houses didn't scare her at all. In fact, she had already been inside, several times. Just not at night. Not all night. Brigid hated people implying she was afraid of anything.
I'm not going to kiss another girl. That time, that one time, the dare hadn't worked. She looked at the girl they wanted her to kiss -- a petite redhead new to the popular group, who'd do anything to win their approval -- and she felt heat spread through her belly. And then fear. Terror that if she kissed that pretty mouth, that girl, she'd like it. And worse, that everyone would know she'd liked it. That time, they hadn't dared her again, and the redhead looked relieved.
Later on, she couldn't even look at her teddy bear, and she forced herself to think about kissing the cutest boy on the soccer team, so she wouldn't think about kissing the redheaded girl.
But this dare was different. Scaredy cat, they said. She tried to refuse again. She even told them she'd gone inside the old house before, but no one had seen it, so no one believed her.
You are scared, they said. We triple-dog-dare you to spend the night in there. And that's what did it. Not the triple-dog-dare itself, but the three dares in a row. Brigid tried not to be superstitious. Magic wasn't real. But things in threes would still get her. If something didn't work in three tries, she gave up. When something bad happened, she couldn't relax until a second and a third bad thing happened. And if she was dared to so something three times, she couldn't refuse.
And that's why Brigid Rourke, newly turned sixteen, shimmied down the tree outside her bedroom window after her parents had gone to bed Saturday night and crept through the dimly-lit suburban streets to the very edge of the forest, where a huge Victorian mansion lurked invisibly behind an overgrown hedge.
She stood at the end of the long, weedy driveway, her flashlight looking feeble against the blackness of the treeshadows, and waited. One of the kids who had dared her was supposed to meet her here at midnight, to make sure she went in. Then the others -- they claimed -- would take it in shifts to watch the house to make sure she didn't sneak back out before dawn. When the sun rose, they said, they would consider the dare fulfilled and she could go back to her teenagerly duties of sleeping until afternoon on Sunday.
When they arrived, the other kids were a giggling, shhh-ing mass, shoving each other out into the street and whispering so loudly they might as well have been yelling. Brigid waited until the last moment to step out of the shadows of the driveway, and was rewarded by a shriek from one of the few girls in the group. She scratched her nose to hide her smirk.
"We didn't think you'd show," said one of the boys, the biggest, the one who had been first to voice the dare.
"Yeah," echoed several of the others. "We thought you'd be too chicken."
"Well, I'm here," said Brigid. She stood straight. She was taller than most of them, even the boys, and this way she could look down her nose at them. She'd never be popular or well-liked, nor did she especially want to be, but being able to look down at them was better, anyway.
"So go on in," said one of the girls. Not the one who had shrieked. This one had perfect blonde hair that she straightened with a flat iron. Once, she had teased Brigid about her long black hair, inherited from her Japanese mother, but secretly -- Brigid believed -- the girl was jealous. It was around then that the other girl had started wearing her own hair loose, letting the stylish haircut grow out.
"I'm going," said Brigid, and turned her back on the others. She didn't bother to count them. The number of kids in the popular crowd changed from day to day as members of the core group befriended or unfriended other kids at school. Brigid had never been so chosen, and didn't want to be. Her mother said she was afraid she might like being popular, that she didn't want to lose what made her different. Brigid thought it was more that she didn't want to be like them, shallow and boring.
"We'll be waiting for you at sunrise," called the tallest boy. "And we'll be watching, so don't try to sneak away."
Without turning, Brigid held up her middle finger in their direction. She didn't care if they could see it in the dark or not, just doing it felt satisfying. If she'd done such a thing at school, or even during the day when she wasn't heading for the door of a haunted house, she'd be sure to get hit for her troubles, or shoved and hair-pulled, nasty rumours spread about her at school.
But here, right now, she wasn't afraid. None of them were going to spend the night in the house.
She walked up to the front door, turned the knob, and opened it. She was a little surprised to find the door unlocked. When she'd snuck in before, she had had to climb through a basement window, and cut her palm on the glass. A flicker of uneasiness crept up her spine, but she pushed it away and stepped inside, aiming her flashlight at the floor to look for rotten spots.
The house had been empty for as long as Brigid could remember, but her parents said it had been lived in not so many years ago. A rich lady had lived here, but then suddenly packed up and left one day, without telling anyone why she was leaving or where she was going. She hadn't been very friendly with the neighbours anyway, but her staff had been mostly local. They're the ones who had started the stories about ghosts.
They said the rich lady had killed someone and buried him in the basement, and he had come back to haunt her. But they also said the house was built on an ancient Indian burial ground. And that the rich lady's grandparents had died in the house, and a servant hanged himself, and half a dozen other unlikely stories. The only thing they agreed on was ghosts.
Brigid pulled the door closed behind her, shutting out the wind. The house was so far from the street, and so sheltered by trees, that very little outside light made it through the grimy windows with their ancient, rotted drapes. She shone the light around, picking out the hulks of abandoned furniture, the fireplace mantel, swaths of cobwebs, dust.
When she'd come here before, she had hoped to find some treasure, a knickknack or a forgotten bit of jewellery, but except for the furniture and some of the larger cooking implements in the kitchen, it seemed the rich lady had packed very thoroughly. She hadn't gone upstairs, though; the staircase looked too rotten to support a cat's weight, let alone a teenaged girl's.
The furniture was too damp and unpleasant-looking to sit on, so Brigid headed for the fireplace. It had a broad stone hearth and a pretty carved wooden surround with a cast-iron decorative cover. The stone wouldn't be comfortable to sit on all night, but it was off the floor and solid. She brushed a spot clear of dust and settled down to wait. She switched off her flashlight to save batteries, but fished a handful of candles out of her pocket and lit them, melting the bottom of each on one of the others just enough to stick it to the hearthstones. Then she got a book out of her other pocket. The candles gave her just enough light to read by and it was going to be a long night.
She had only made it through half a chapter when she realized that a book about a girl who finds a doorway into another world -- a darker, scarier world than her home -- was perhaps not the best choice of reading for spending a night in a supposedly haunted house. Every little creak and rustle drew Brigid's attention from the story, and got her thoughts turning to ghosts and bodies in the basement.
By the time she reached the last page of the chapter, Brigid realized than one of the noises wasn't the wind batting at the leaves or the old timbers of the house settling. Just a mouse, she told herself. Hopefully a mouse and not a rat. Not that she was afraid of rodents of any size, but a rat was bigger and, she supposed, more likely to bite.
It was a faint scraping in the basement that she heard. Shhk, shhk, shhk. The basement, where there was supposed to be a dead body buried, though Brigid hadn't seen any signs of a grave the times she'd climbed through the basement window to poke around in daylight. It would be a skeleton by now, wouldn't it? How long had it been buried there? Since before Brigid was born, at least. Surely it would be just a skeleton by now.
Brigid wasn't afraid of skeletons. Silly to be frightened of something you had under your own skin. She even had a little skull of a rabbit she'd found in the woods, hidden in her closet. It had been on her dresser until her mother had told her to throw it away.
Shhk, shhk, shhk. The sound was louder now. Could a mouse make that much noise? Could a rat? Shhk. What would a old skeleton sound like, dragging its dry foot bones across the floor?
A raccoon. Or a skunk. That must be it. Hopefully not a skunk, though.
Brigid turned pointedly back to her book. She began to read the next page, but realized she didn't really remember anything from the whole last chapter. She'd been too distracted by the noise. Shhk.
Then silence. Brigid sat tensely on the stone hearth, listening as hard as she could. Wind rustled the leaves outside, and somewhere upstairs a branch scraped against the side of the house. Beams and floors creaked quietly as the changing humidity made the wood shift. A tiny scraping behind the cast iron fireplace cover was certainly a mouse.
Brigid let her breath out slowly. Whatever it was must be gone. She turned back to her book. This time she managed to read three whole chapters before she heard another noise that didn't fit.
Creaking this time, and not just the house settling or a tree bending outside in the rising wind. It came from the basement again, but this time it was the stairs. Brigid stood up without thinking, clutching her book in both hands. Something was coming up the stairs.
For long moments she stood frozen in place, straining to hear, to tell from the sounds exactly what was coming up the basement stairs. A skeleton? Would a decades-old bunch of dry bones weigh enough to make those massive old steps groan?
They came slowly, the noises, the footsteps, if that's what they were. Like sneaking.
Then the basement door moaned on tarnished and bent old hinges and Brigid jumped, and dropped her book and almost shrieked.
Almost, but she managed to stop herself. She also -- just barely -- stopped herself from turning and fleeing across the big old room and out the front door. She did not believe in ghosts, or skeletons that walked, or haunted houses. She made her self bend and pick up the book, made herself sit back down on the stone and look at the words, and when the soft shuffle of footsteps reached the door to the parlour where she waited, she made herself glance nonchalantly up from her reading and raised her eyebrows in question.
Then she almost jumped and shrieked again before she realized that the apparition in the doorway was not a zombie or a ghost, but another girl, close to her own age. The girl was pale enough for a ghost, and dressed in what looked like tattered rags at first glance, and she stared at Brigid with huge dark eyes.
But as they stared at each other across the room, Brigid could see that the girl's clothes had been deliberately cut and torn and stitched back together in a way that made them look like a costume from a dark fairy tale. She wished she dared wear something like that, instead of the standard jeans and tee shirt that every other teenager wore, except the popular and fashionable girls.
Finally, the other girl spoke. "Holy hell," she said, in a voice lower than a girl's usually was, and with just a trace of unidentifiable accent. "I though you were spook." Then she smiled, and her grin showed slightly crooked teeth and dimples. Except for the layers of skirts and the length of her wild, multi-hued hair, Brigid might have thought the other girl was a boy.
"And I thought you were a skeleton," said Brigid, smiling back. "Or maybe a zombie."
"What are you even doing here?"
"What are you doing here?"
The other girl frowned slightly, then shrugged. "I'm just passing through, and this old house seemed like a better place to sleep a few days than under a bush."
"Don't you have parents?"
Brigid waited, but the other girl didn't elaborate. "I got dared to spend the night here," she finally said. "I don't really believe the stories, and anyway I've been inside before, so it's no big deal."
So Brigid found herself telling the other girl all the tales she could remember about the old house, and in the process discovered she remembered a few more. A servant was supposed to have cut her wrists herself in the attic bath, and another jumped from a third floor window. Someone else murdered a cheating lover. All the stories were full of spurned love, or unrequited love, or jealous rages.
"Either a lot of people died here, or else no one really ever knew why this house was haunted," said the other girl, finally.
"I don't think it's haunted at all," said Brigid. "I think people just like to scare themselves. Or have something more interesting to say than they spent the day cleaning up after a rich old lady."
"You don't believe in ghosts?" said the other girl.
"I already said that," said Brigid. "You do?"
Then they just sat for a little while, side-by-side on the hearthstones, listening to the wind and the leaves and the house.
"What's your name?" the girl asked.
"Brigid. What's yours?"
"Like daylight? Were your parents tree huggers?" As soon as the words came out, Brigid wanted to kick herself. As a girl who looked mostly Japanese but who had a very Irish name, she knew what it was like to have your name made fun of. "Sorry," she said.
Day shrugged. "My parents were... are fundamentalist Christians. They named me David. I chose Day." She -- or he? -- looked Brigid steady in the eye, chin titled up stubbornly, as if daring her to make more fun.
Brigid wasn't sure what to think. She wasn't surprised that Day was a boy under those skirts. His voice and face were boyish enough. But she knew that at her school a boy dressing like that would be hounded mercilessly. Then again, at her school a boy who wanted to dress in girl's clothes would probably never dare in the first place.
Finally she thought of something to say that might not be thought offensive. "Are you... Do you want to be a girl?" On second thought, that probably was offensive.
"I am a girl," Day said, nostrils flaring. Then she looked down at her hands and Brigid noticed how tightly they were clasped together. "I don't even know why I told you my parents called me David. If I hadn't said you'd never have known."
Again, Brigid wasn't sure what to say. She floundered for words to express that she didn't care if Day was a girl or a boy, that she could be whatever she wanted and Brigid wouldn't judge, but before she could get the words out, Day said, "Anyway, I don't care what you think. I am who I am and if you don't like it, you can fu--"
Her words were cut off by a loud crash from upstairs and both girls jumped to their feet. To her surprise, Brigid discovered they were holding hands, as if a physical connection could stave off fear. And maybe it could. She felt Day start to tug her hand away and tightened her grip; the other girl relaxed.
"You are who you are," Brigid said quietly, not sure what to think about the way heat spread up from their connected hands into her belly and fluttered there like electrified insects. "I am who I am. But what I wonder is, who is up there crashing around?"
"Or what is up there," said Day, in a whisper so soft Brigid could barely hear it.
They looked at each other. "Do we run, or do we go look?" said Day. Her hand tightened on Brigid's, then relaxed, but didn't let go.
"I don't believe in ghosts," replied Brigid.
"I do," said Day. "But even if it isn't ghosts, it could be a murder, or a thief, or a... something worse."
"Something worse than a murderer?"
"Think about it." Day shifted a little closer and Brigid felt warm where they almost touched. She'd never felt this way about a girl before, she told herself, pushing memories of the redhead aside. Was it because this girl was born a boy? Or was it one of those things where danger brings people closer in unexpected ways? Because now that Day mentioned it, Brigid could think of quite a few things worse than a murderer, or even a murderous ghost.
"If we run, I lose the dare," she said. There had been silence from upstairs after the crash, but now there was windy, whispery sound. Like loud breathing.
"Did you promise something, if you lose?'
"So you don't really lose anything."
"Only the respect of some kids I don't care about."
"You want to run, then?" Day was edging away from the stairs to the second floor, but not towards the front door. Instead, she was aiming for the basement door.
"No." Brigid stared at the darkness where the heavy wood of the old main stair lurked, hardly lit at all from the flickering candles on the hearthstones. "I have my own self-respect to lose, too."
"You won't care much about self-respect if it turns out to be an axe-murderer."
"Or a zombie," said Brigid, and they grinned at each other. Until the breathing got too loud to ignore. Then they stared at each other with wide eyes.
"So?" said Day.
"We go look?" said Brigid.
"We go look." Then Day leaned over and kissed Brigid on the mouth, softly at first, then more insistent. For just an instant, Brigid almost pulled away. Then she thought, I can kiss whoever I want. Who cares what anyone thinks? And she let her lips part against Day's, felt the heat and softness of the other girl's mouth, then a sudden tingle of want as Day slipped her tongue into Brigid's mouth.
It could have gone on forever, that kiss, but another crash upstairs jerked them apart. They stared into each other's eyes.
"Let's go," said Day softly, and Brigid nodded. Whatever happened upstairs, whether it was a murderer lurking, or a ghoul, or just a raccoon looking for a place to have its babies, everything would be OK. It would have to be, because Brigid was determined to kiss Day again. And again. And maybe again after that. And she didn't care who knew. She didn't care if Day was a boy or a girl or something else entirely. She wouldn't ever let fear tell her what to do.