The scream started out loud and horrible and then it got worse. It was the loudest thing I had ever heard in my entire life. It unfroze me instantly and I stuck my fingers in my ears like I do whenever I hear people shouting or fighting or playing loud music, but it didn’t help. The sound was coming from inside my own ears, inside my own head. It got louder and louder and louder until nothing else existed in the whole universe except the sound of that scream.
A few seconds went by, and then a few minutes, and then a hundred years. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head back and forth but it just kept getting louder. Time slowed down and stretched out and then stopped. And then, a million million years later, there was silence.
For a moment I thought maybe I’d just gone deaf, but I opened my eyes and saw that the ghosts had stopped screaming. They were still there, in their chairs, in their circle, staring right at me with their Dead Eyes, but they weren’t screaming anymore. And then I looked up in the tree, and there was the girl, looking at me with the angriest red eyes with her eyebrows pointing down in the middle and a big frown. She was standing up on the branch, not even holding on to keep her balance, and she was Glaring at me. For a second I wondered what I had done wrong. When someone is Glaring at me, it means I’ve done something wrong again, and I feel bad and get ready to say sorry right away, even though I never know what it is I’ve done. If I knew what I was doing wrong, I wouldn’t do it, obviously.
“You were supposed to run away,” said the girl, and her voice was whiney, just like Beth, who is a girl at school who always talks in a whiney voice when the teacher gives us homework. Granpy said it’s because she’s Spoiled. The girl ghost sounded Spoiled too.
I took a moment to think about what had happened, to figure out how I was supposed to know that she wanted me to run away, but I couldn’t figure it out. I guessed it must be another one of those things which are Common Sense, which people tell me I was born without. When people say something is Common Sense, they mean it’s super simple and everyone should know it, but I’ve noticed that people can never explain how they know it, which makes it sound Anything But simple to me. I told Granpy that and he said it was a Trenchant Observation.
But I was still standing there with all those ghosts in front of me with their Dead Eyes and the Spoiled girl ghost Glaring at me and maybe waiting for me to apologize, and it was all silent again until I heard a page turn behind me.
I looked over my shoulder and there was an old woman sitting on a wooden chair with an ancient magazine, just like the old man out back. And just like the old man, she didn’t look up or make eye contact with me when she said, “Don’t pay her no mind. She just wants attention. Don’t give her the satisfaction.”
I turned and looked back at the girl, who was angrier than ever now. Her eyes were getting bigger, and all her fingers were growing the long, yellow claws, and she looked like she would scream again, so I figured I’d better say something.
“Are you the Duchess?”
That stopped the girl, and she smiled for a moment, another strange smile that didn’t match her eyes. “The Duchess is my name,” she said in a voice that sounded like a growling cat. “The Duchess is my title. The Duchess is me.” Then she started to chuckle, and the chuckle started to echo all around me, like twenty people all chuckling together. Then I noticed that the other ghosts were chuckling, too, although their eyes were still dead.
“Why are you trying to scare me?” I thought that was a pretty brave thing to say. Maybe the girl was just lonely and wanted to play. Maybe the whole thing was a big misunderstanding.
Again, I heard the old woman behind me. “I’m telling you, she’s just looking for attention.” I glanced over my shoulder to look at her. She still didn’t look up from her magazine, not for a single second. “Don’t give her none. Don’t give in to her nonsense. Just looking for attention, that’s all she’s doing. Don’t pay her no mind.” Then she went silent again, just flipping through that dusty old magazine.
When I looked back at the tree, the girl was Glaring even more than before. Her eyes were much bigger, and her mouth was open a lot bigger than a mouth is normally supposed to be, with great big long sharp teeth. She was floating, now, not touching the tree at all, and the other ghosts were all standing up. They started to moan. I was glad it wasn’t another scream. This was a creepy sound, but not too loud, and it didn’t hurt my ears. Then I heard wind blowing, and felt the air blow cold on my face, but the dust on the floor didn’t move at all, so I know it wasn’t a real wind. Then the worst thing happened: I started to hear the creepy-crawley sound, the sound of a million million moths and flies and beetles and worms and spiders all limping towards me all at the same time. There was a little movement at the corner of my eye, and a few seconds later I could see them, all of them. All of the bugs that had ever lived in this place, so many of them that they were like a flood, scurrying through the furniture and the dust and each other, racing towards me. There was a circle of dusty floor around me and it was getting smaller and smaller every second.
At least this time I knew what the Duchess wanted. I knew what I was supposed to do, and I didn’t want to hear any more screaming, so I turned and I ran. Through the door, through the dark room, through the back porch with the old man in the straw hat, up onto the table in the back yard, up into the tree, over the fence, and straight back home, and I didn’t stop until I got to my door.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. There were three reasons for this.
1. I was still scared. I was still pretty sure that ghosts couldn’t hurt people, not the way falling down or slipping with a knife or getting pushed by a bully can hurt you, but I was scared anyway. I was scared of all the ghost bugs I saw, which I realized must be everywhere all the time even though I didn’t see them. I was scared that the girl knew where I lived and would come and scream at me in my room, which is supposed to be one of my Safe Places. I was scared that I would never feel safe in my tree again. I was scared that maybe ghosts really could hurt our bodies, they just hadn’t done it yet. I was scared of the other ghosts and their Dead Eyes. What was wrong with them? How did they get that way? Would they hurt me, too? Would they come to my tree and take my spot, or come into my house and scream when I was sleeping?
2. I was worried about the Duchess. Most of the time, she had been horrible, but I could still remember her sad, sad face and the way she asked me for help. She’d said she wanted me to run away, but she was the one who brought me to that house in the first place. Did she want me to be there? Did she still need help? Should I do something for her? Even worse, I knew that maybe the girl had lied to me. Maybe she didn’t need help. But I thought it was real. Did that mean I wouldn’t know when someone was lying to me? What if someone wanted to hurt me? How would I know? That made me scared again, which belongs under number 1.
3. I had broken Granpy’s rule and gone into the haunted house, where I wasn’t supposed to go. Even worse, I hadn’t told Granpy about it because I was still too scared. When he saw me he knew right away that something was wrong, and he said, “Princess, are you okay?” And I didn’t answer him. I didn’t say one word, because the only things I could say would be to tell him I broke the rules and explain about the ghosts, which he wouldn’t understand and might make him angry, or to lie to him, which is something I never, ever do. So he decided I was probably having One Of My Bad Days and I needed some Princess Time, which is something that happens sometimes, and he told me to come get him whenever I needed him. Then he blew me a kiss and went into the kitchen and made dinner and brought it to my room so I could eat In Privacy. Then later he said goodnight by doing our secret knock on the door, so I could be alone as long as I needed to. And I felt worse and worse because I knew I should tell him the truth, but I was too scared, and that belongs under number 1, too.
So I laid in bed with the lights off and I tried to go to sleep a few times, but every time I closed my eyes all I could see was spiders and dead eyes and the ghost girl’s long, sharp, yellow teeth when she made a big smile but her eyes were still angry and red. When I opened my eyes, Granmy was sitting on my bed, looking at me with Worried Eyes. I asked her what was the right thing to do, and she shrugged her shoulders, because she didn’t know. She didn’t know what had happened, so she didn’t know what the choices were, so of course she didn’t know what the right one was. I decided that I would tell Granmy everything, but then I decided that the right thing to do would be to tell Granpy and Granmy at the same time. It wouldn’t be fair not to tell Granpy, so I got up right that second and I went to Granpy’s room and I knocked on his door. I knew it was late, but he’d said that I should come get him whenever I needed him.
I woke him up, which I felt bad about, but he told me it was A-Oh-Kay, so I sat down on his bed, and Granmy sat next to me, and I told them absolutely everything. It all came out in a big long flood of words and I barely had time to breathe. By the end of it I was crying a lot, but Granpy and Granmy were used to that and they didn’t bother me about it. Finally I ran out of words, and I stopped talking, and I stared at the floor while Granpy though it all over for a minute.
“Well, Princess,” he finally said, “it sounds like you’ve had quite an experience. And I don’t know what exactly happened, but it was enough to give you a good rattle. But I’ll tell you what: you’re safe and sound at home now, and no one is ever gonna hurt you as long as you’re here with me.”
“With us, he means.” That was Granmy. She was used to Granpy leaving her out of the conversations, and she didn’t mind. “No one bad is gonna get past me, Princess, and that’s a Fact.”
And I looked at her face, and I saw that it was very serious, and I knew that it was true.