The three of us are riding our bikes in a line along the narrow bike path. The only illumination comes from our lights shining over the road.
The threatening words on that postcard have been on my mind all week. A few times I’d been on the verge of showing the card to Dylan, but I simply can’t imagine the message is meant for him. Dylan doesn’t have any enemies. Everyone at school likes him. There is no address on the card, so someone must have put it through the door in person. But who knows? Maybe it’s just a silly joke.
I look up. Dylan’s cycling beside me, our handlebars almost touching. He’s wearing a new pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and his eyes are shining. I try to imagine that he was ever seriously ill, but it’s almost impossible.
Dylan smiles. “That doesn’t sound very enthusiastic.”
I actually have no idea what to think about this whole Fright Night business. My suggestion was just an impulse thing, because I wanted to do something with Quin and Dylan. Now that it’s almost time, my nerves are really kicking in. It feels weird that I can’t back out now. It’s like the safety bars on the roller coaster have locked shut and the cars are slowly shunting along.
“Nearly there!” Quin points at a sign by the roadside. Someone had scrawled the words fright night on it.
“Feels like we’re falling off the edge of the world,” says Dylan.
“Then we must be in the right place.”
I know Quin’s right. The information they sent us said the woods were pretty remote, far from civilization. In the daytime, it’s paradise for dog owners, who let their pets run free, but at night it’s deserted.
We cycle up behind another boy and girl on bikes. The girl looks back and asks if we’re here for Fright Night too.
“You bet,” Quin says, bouncing up and down on his seat. All the way here, he’s been listing exactly what he hopes to encounter in the woods. Dylan had looked at me and sighed a few times, and we both laughed. Quin can be so hyper.
A guy in a yellow vest is standing on the roadside with a flashlight in his hand. He signals at us to turn off the road. We see dozens of bike racks, and we quickly find places. Some other Fright Nighters are already walking around. Who are we going to get teamed up with? And what if we don’t get along with them? We have to spend four hours together, so it could be a very long evening.
I run my fingers over the beads of my bracelet and try to calm myself down. I remind myself that I’m with my friends, Dylan and Quin. I don’t have to do this alone.
It’s busy at the stand where we have to sign in. The two cyclists who arrived just before us join the line too.
“Some guys who did this last year told me they make you sign a contract,” says Quin.
I look up in surprise. “What? Why?”
“We have to declare that we accept all responsibility for our participation. You know, just in case someone kicks the bucket.”
I know Quin’s joking, but I can still feel myself getting more and more nervous. Signing a contract sounds so . . . serious.
What have we gotten ourselves into?
Five Days Before Fright Night
“So what do you want to do this summer break?” Quin’s lying on the bed with a book in his hands. He never reads, doesn’t have the patience. My best friend always has to be talking. He spends half his classes out in the hallway because he stops everyone from working.
I can’t wait to be lying in the pool. Quin’s attic room is so hot. I need to cool down.
My own bedroom, one floor below, is way less stuffy, but it still doesn’t feel like mine. Quin’s mom and dad have tried so hard to make me feel at home here. They bought a new bed and painted the walls. But I’d still rather sleep in Quin’s room. On the extra mattress on the floor, I can pretend I’m just having a sleepover, like I used to.
But it isn’t the way it used to be. I live here now, even though it sometimes feels like I just stole Quin’s dad’s study. Because of me, Johan has to work longer days at the office now. When I said that the other day, Quin immediately went on the defensive.
“What are you talking about? You’re part of the family, Dylan. You always have been. It’s just that it’s official now.”
I know that’s how it is for Quin, but I still feel like an intruder in this family sometimes.
“Want to go to the pool tomorrow, then?” Quin gives me a cheeky grin. “I bet Sofia will want to come.”
When I hear her name, I drop backward onto the mattress. I play with the key on the string around my neck.
The ceiling of Quin’s room is made up of wooden boards. The cracks between them are the perfect place for secret messages. I always used to roll up notes and hide them there. It feels like centuries ago.
A sharp pain shoots through my nose, right in the spot between my eyes. Then I see Quin’s book lying beside me on the floor.
“What are you doing?” I yell. “You nearly broke my glasses!”
Quin grins. “I asked you a question. But you were just thinking about Sofia in a bikini, weren’t you?”
Ever since Sofia joined our class at the start of this year, Quin has been making comments like that, each one more irritating than the last.
“Not everything is about Sofia,” I say.
“Yeah. But a lot is.” Suddenly Quin pounces on me. He grabs hold of my wrists and pushes them into the mattress. His face is just a few inches above mine.
“Admit it--you were thinking about her.”
“Nope. I was thinking about the old days.” I try to wriggle out of his grasp, but Quin bursts out laughing.
“It’s about time you started lifting weights, my friend. Those arms of yours are pretty puny.”
I try with all my might to push Quin off, but I can’t. “Get off me!”
Quin shakes his head. “Not until you finally admit that you like Sofia.”
“Then you’ll just have to spend the rest of summer break sitting on me.”
The door swings open. I expect to see Quin’s mom, but instead of Hester, Sofia comes into the room. She’s here so often that it’s kind of like her second home.
Quin rolls off me and I sit up.
Sofia bursts out laughing. “Am I disturbing you guys?”
“Not at all,” I say quickly. “What’s up?”
Sofia drops down beside me on the mattress, and as always, I notice that she smells like she’s just spent hours outside: fresh and sunny.
“You need to see this.” Sofia unfolds a piece of paper. It looks like part of a poster; the edges are torn and some of the words are missing.
Quin chuckles. “Did you tear that off a noticeboard on the way over here?”
Sofia smooths out the paper. “Yup.”
“What is it?” I ask.
“An ad for Fright Night.”
“Your chance to put an end to your fears forever.”
I reach for the arms of my glasses and push them more snugly onto my face. Put an end to your fears. Sofia’s words buzz around inside my head. Imagine if that were possible. I could finally sleep at night, and the bad memories would be a thing of the past.
“Fears? I don’t have any,” says Quin.
“BS. Everyone gets scared sometimes.” Sofia looks at me. Her green eyes warm me and freeze me at the same time. “What’s your biggest fear?”
The question takes me by surprise. It feels like the room is slowly changing into a different one. A room with blue linoleum on the floor. I feel the needles going into my arm again, sometimes as many as five in one day. Bloodwork, IV drips, checking levels of this and that. I couldn’t keep count.
“Heights,” I say, making something up. “You guys want something to drink?”
Sofia nods. “Yeah. Orange soda?”
“Me too,” says Quin.
I get up off the mattress. My right leg protests as usual, and I almost trip over Sofia when I step across her. As soon as I close the door behind me, I pause on the landing. It feels like I’m wearing a tie that’s way too tight.
I need some fresh air. I head down the steep attic stairs and throw open the door to my own room. It’s dark in here. Out of habit, I still keep the curtains closed. I pull them aside and open the balcony doors.
The fresh air comes streaming into my room, and I drop onto the floor and lie down. I feel the wooden floor under the back of my head. It makes me feel calm--there’s no sign of any blue linoleum.
Your chance to put an end to your fears forever.
Sofia sounded so positive when she said it, like she really believes it. I remember an article I read recently, about people with phobias. It said it sometimes helps people to get over their fear if you expose them to it. It made me think about Hester’s suggestion that I try eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy. The therapist takes you back to the moments when you experienced a traumatic event that now causes stress or anxiety, and you relive them, processing the feelings associated with them in a safe setting. Just the thought of it made me shudder. Why would I want to go through all those moments again?
But maybe this Fright Night could work. Maybe I need to be really scared for a night so that I can put my fears into perspective.
I look at my new bed. I’ve hardly slept in it. Quin’s snoring really gets on my nerves, but at the same time I need it to fall asleep. As long as Quin is snoring, everything is fine and I can feel safe.
The first night in this room, I woke up screaming. Hester and Johan rushed in and sat on the edge of my bed for a while. Hester’s face was pale with worry, and I felt so ashamed that I’d given them such a fright. But I also know that I can’t sleep in Quin’s room for the rest of my life. There’ll come a time when I have to cope on my own. And maybe that time has come.
I stand up slowly and head to the kitchen, where Hester is cooking dinner. At first I thought Quin’s family only had such great dinners when I was visiting, but since I moved in, I know they have meals like that every night.
“Can I get a drink?”
Hester looks up and smiles. “You know you don’t have to ask every time now.”
Yeah, it’s such an irritating habit. I quickly open the fridge so she won’t see my red cheeks.
“Having fun upstairs?”
“She’s a nice girl, that Sofia.”
Hester’s as bad as Quin. She’s never actually said so, but I know she thinks the two of us are a good match.
I take three glasses from the cabinet. “Yes?”
“You can trust her.”
I know what Hester’s trying to say. She thinks I should talk to Sofia and Quin about what happened.
Johan and Hester have told Quin only half the story, because I don’t want anything to change between us. My best friend knows just enough to understand why I’m living here, but he hasn’t asked me anything otherwise. And I don’t know what I’d do if he suddenly started asking me questions. Where would I start?
“At your own pace,” says Hester. “Okay?”
I nod and quickly head upstairs with three glasses and a bottle of orange soda. Hester’s giving me time, but she still brings it up pretty often. I know she’s right. It’s not good that Quin’s the only one in the house who doesn’t know the whole story, but I can’t bring myself to tell him the truth. It could change everything between us, and I don’t want that to happen. I want to be his friend, not some kind of patient.
At Quin’s bedroom door, I take a deep breath and then open it. The heat billows into my face again.
“Where did you get to? I’m dying of thirst.” Quin snatches the bottle from my hand and fills the glasses.
“Here’s to summer break,” says Sofia, raising her glass.
“And to Fright Night,” Quin adds. “A night in the woods, facing our greatest fears. It sounds perfect.”
It sounds like hours of EMDR therapy, but this is a much better and more exciting alternative. Plus, I don’t have to do it alone. There are three of us.
“You sure you’re up for it?” asks Sofia.
“Sure.” I nod. “Bring it on.”
“This is going to be so cool.” Sofia puts her arms around me. Before I realize what’s happening, I feel her body against mine. We’ve never been this close before and her hair tickles my cheek. Startled, I splash soda over the edge of my glass.
“I’m going to sign us up right now,” Quin says, grabbing his laptop.
Inside my head, I can hear Hester’s voice. You can trust her.
Dylan’s body freezes as soon as I touch him. I instantly let go, but it doesn’t improve the sense of distance between us. Even worse, it makes me feel more distant from him than ever.
“We need a team of five,” says Quin. “Or we can’t take part. If we sign up as a team of three, the organizers will match us up with another group that doesn’t have enough players.”
Fright Night with strangers? I know Dylan won’t like that idea. Quin’s the one who’s always up for a challenge. Dylan prefers to stay in the background. At school, whole recesses go by without him saying anything. It’s barely noticeable, though, because Quin talks enough for two.
“Let’s do it,” Dylan suddenly says, much to my surprise. First he agreed to Fright Night and now he’ll do it with strangers? I don’t get it.
“We’re just in time--today’s the last day to sign up.”
I go stand by Quin and look at the screen with him. “Do we have to give them any details?”
Quin points. “They want to know our greatest fears. Are they going to use them against us later?”
I think back to the beginning of this school year. I was new at school and didn’t know anyone. I’ve never been more afraid, but Fright Night probably can’t do anything with that. Maybe I should put down insects. I hate creepy-crawlies with their tickly little feet.