This is a ghost story. No matter how old you get, the thought of ghosts in the dark is frightening. The feeling of your heart racing. Wondering whether you should run or hide. Grown-ups call it adrenaline. Fight or flight. But that is their adult way of saying they are scared. They are frightened of the dark. And like you, grown-ups believe in ghosts.
This is also a story of three days in the lives of three children alone at home for a weekend. For the sake of simple beginnings, their names are Alyssa, Bradley, and Sean. Their story began on a Friday morning when Alyssa Dempsey awoke for a second time.
The first time was when her mom gave her a light shake at six o’clock in the morning. John and Leslie Dempsey planned to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary at a small bed and breakfast in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, a four-hour ride from the Dempsey home, leaving Alyssa in charge of her two brothers.
Now you may wonder why two sensible parents – John and Leslie were certainly prudent people – would leave three children home alone for three days. The answer resided in their seventeen-year-old daughter Alyssa, a responsible straight-A student who they previously left in charge of her brothers for their overnight getaways. What was one more night, reasoned her father in proposing the weekend.
After speaking with Alyssa, Leslie booked the vacation. But Friday morning found Mrs. Dempsey a little nervous about leaving her daughter in charge for an extra day.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” she whispered in the early morning darkness.
“We’ll be fine,” said Alyssa, eyes half-open. “You guys have a good time.”
Leslie’s question slightly annoyed Alyssa. Her track record was excellent, and she was more responsible than many of her friends’ parents.
“Okay,” said her mother. “We’ll both have our cell phones on. I’ll call tomorrow just to check in. And don’t let Bradley give you a hard time.”
The one guarantee for the weekend was that Alyssa’s thirteen-year-old brother Bradley – he preferred Bradley, not Brad – would be a problem. Leaving Bradley with a babysitter, a grandparent, Alyssa, or anyone else, always gave Leslie heart palpitations. One could use a lot of words to describe Bradley. Challenging, stubborn, demanding. They added up to a difficult boy. But if confronted with adversity, Leslie felt certain that Bradley’s soul would stand and fight for his family.
“If for any reason you find yourself getting really angry at him, just do what I do. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and count backwards from ten.”
“I will,” Alyssa replied with a yawn. After receiving a soft kiss on her forehead, Alyssa fell back to sleep, dreaming of a friend’s party.
While she slept, her youngest brother’s blue eyes snapped open. Sean’s night had been rather unusual, and he still held what his new friends left for him. It reminded Sean of the long, thin plastic wand the magician used at his fourth birthday party the previous month. But this wand was made of glass with a dark red liquid trapped inside that moved when Sean turned it in his hand, which he did for a very long time until hearing Alyssa’s cell phone play a musical ringtone across the hall.
The rising summer sun streamed through her window as Alyssa reached for the phone. She saw Sean emerge from his room twisting his fingers through the sandy curls of his hair. In his other hand, the little boy carried something which refracted the light passing over her head. Evaporating rainbows dotted his path.
“Morning,” said Sean with a small sing-song voice, before disappearing down the hall. Alyssa gave him a sleepy wave.
“Hey,” she said, putting the phone to her ear.
“Hey back,” replied the smooth, soothing voice of Alyssa’s boyfriend Will. “What are you doing?”
“I was sleeping.”
“Sorry. Were you dreaming about me?”
“No,” said Alyssa with a yawn and a stretch. “Actually, I was dreaming I was at Rebecca’s house and there was a party going on, but I was supposed to be watching my brothers. I looked around, but I couldn’t find them. Then you called.”
“So I saved you,” Will said happily.
“Sort of.” While they spoke, Alyssa began her morning fight with her long, dark-brown hair, which was curly like Sean’s, but without the luxury of being cute when in a state of disarray. “What are you up to? I thought you were abandoning me for your grandparents this weekend?”
“I am. But I have something for you first. Look out the window.”
Jumping up, Alyssa whipped her blanket and sheets aside. Will leaned against their mailbox holding a huge bouquet of summer flowers, a collage of yellow, white and orange. Seeing her widen the blinds, he waved.
“You rat,” Alyssa cried. “I look terrible.” Will ended the call and started walking to the Dempseys’ front door smiling up at his girlfriend. “Rat!” she repeated, yelling at him while banging her fists on the window.
Alyssa interrupted her race to the front door to perform a mirror check in the hall bathroom. What a mess, she thought. Her white t-shirt sported an egg-shaped, brown stain from the coffee ice-cream she dripped on it the previous night while watching television. Her baggy, grey sweats, hiding the extra five pounds she wrestled to lose every summer, looked no better. And my hair, she lamented silently, while using her hands in vain to make some sense of the chaos.
“Yuck,” she said with exasperation as the doorbell rang, the chime echoing up the stairs.
All six feet of Will leaned in for a kiss, as Alyssa opened the door. The sweet fragrance of the flowers, the earthy smell of Will’s cologne, and the touch of his lips made Alyssa forget about her early morning looks for a moment, until Bradley bounded down the steps, clad in navy-blue boxer shorts and a white undershirt, singing “kissy, kissy, kiss, kiss.”
“Get lost,” said Alyssa whipping her head around with a snarl. Bradley stuck out a big, red tongue, rolled his fierce, blue eyes, and then retreated to join Sean in the family room – or rather to evict Sean from the family room.
“My parents are finally away for a full weekend and you’re not going to be here,” moaned Alyssa as she returned to Will with pouty lips. He was the first boy she loved. Alyssa lived for his smile that curled up the right cheek, and his soft black hair falling to the neck, which she played with to Will’s unending annoyance.
“Hey I’m the one stuck visiting my grandparents. Anyway, I’m coming home early Sunday. I’ll be over before your folks get back,” he said handing the bouquet to Alyssa.
“I love them,” said Alyssa, smiling. But before she could say another word, Sean and Bradley began fighting, their shouts rumbling down the hall to the foyer.
“I got here first!”
“You can watch cartoons in the basement!”
“Alyssa, he’s pushing me!”
Lowering her head, Alyssa growled. Will put his hand on her chin, lifted her face, and gave Alyssa a quick kiss. “I’ll see you Sunday.”
“What’s going on?” yelled Alyssa stomping into the family room. She separated her brothers while Sean continued to push at Bradley through his sister’s legs. “Mom and Dad are gone like two hours and you’re already fighting.”
“He can watch cartoons somewhere else,” complained Bradley, holding up a large, white plastic sword encrusted with bright red and blue beads. Bradley’s angry eyes flicked back and forth between Sean, the bratty brother who usually spoiled his fun, and Alyssa, the bossy sister who took pleasure in his misery.
Bradley snapped his chin up. “Well,” he asked in a cynical voice. “Who wins? Like I don’t know that already?”
Alyssa shook her head and crossed her arms. She was not ready to win a fight, and this fight was not worth winning. She turned with an apologetic smile to Sean and he looked to the carpet with defeat.
“C’mon buddy. I’ll make you breakfast. What do you want?”
“Pancakes!” recovered Sean with a shout.
As Alyssa led her youngest brother into the kitchen, Bradley shook his fist in triumph. Yes, he thought. Hero Warrior is mine. The worn and lined grey face of an aging king greeted him on the television.
“Who are you?” asked the old ruler in a deep, raspy voice.
Bradley knelt before the cartoon image, planting the plastic tip of his toy sword into the carpeted floor. “I am the Hero Warrior, your loyal servant,” he declared.
“I want to be a serve ant,” called Sean seated at the Dempsey’s large, dark walnut kitchen table. He turned to Alyssa. “Is a serve ant bigger than a regular ant?”
“A servant is not an ant,” explained Alyssa. “A servant is someone that has to do what another person tells them. All the time.”
“I don’t want to be that,” Sean replied with a frown. “Can you make Bradley be my servant?”
“Never,” shouted Bradley, overhearing his brother while he danced about in a virtual battle.
Alyssa ignored them both. As Sean watched his sister search the cabinets for pancake mix, he played with the wand and wondered if his friends would bring him something else tonight.
“What’s that?” asked Alyssa, recognizing the glass object Sean was carrying when Will called earlier.
“My magic wand,” said Sean proudly. “See.” He twirled it in his hand to show her. From the family room, Bradley cried “die, die” with his sword flailing at unseen enemies.
“Will you shut up,” shouted Alyssa. Bradley disregarded her. “Where did you get it?” asked Alyssa, resuming her search.
“The Buddies gave it to me,” explained Sean.
The hunt was not going well. No pancake mix yet. Sean was probably going to be disappointed. “Yeah,” said Alyssa. “And who are the Buddies?”
“My friends. I saw them last night. They gave me this.”
“Yeah,” replied Alyssa barely listening. “Speaking of buddies, buddy, I don’t see any pancake mix.”
“But I want pancakes!”
Looking at the cabinets with defeat, Alyssa scratched her head. “How about eggs?”
“No. I want pancakes. Blueberry pancakes, and strawberry pancakes, and banana pancakes, and chocolate chip pancakes, and-”
“Sean,” interrupted Alyssa, raising her voice. She peered into the last cabinet. “Sorry buddy, but it doesn’t look like I’m making pancakes this morning.”
“You don’t have to,” said Sean. “We have lots and lots already.”
The warm, sweet smell reached Alyssa’s nose. The smell of-
Alyssa turned around and reached back to hold herself up. Sean smiled, waving the wand with glee. In front of him, covering the table were stacks of pancakes. Hundreds were piled high with sugar-scented steam rising off of them, curling away into the air.